Advertising & distrust: can we solve the industry’s reputation crisis?
Trust in advertising might be growing but there's a very long way to go, argues Publicis.Poke's strategy director
03 November 2021
Recently we celebrated the findings from the Advertising Association showing that public trust in the industry had increased 25 per cent since its lowest point in 2015.
Unfortunately, we’re still one of the least trusted sectors included in the AA's study.
The truth is that in 2020 we officially became the most distrusted professionals in the UK, just behind politicians. This year IPSOS had the idea to add social media influencers to the list so we're now just the second least trusted. Victory.
When I tell people I work in advertising some think it's cool. Something out of Mad Men maybe. Others don't think much of it, just another office job. But for many, advertising is something to be wary of, an all-powerful machine that creates the need for unnecessary things.
Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Did Ford use advertising to create the need for the automobile? Yes he did. But did Ford create the need for faster travel? The need for status? The need for a place to go with your girlfriend when you live with your parents? I don't think so.
With social media the problem turned into algorithms. Platforms controlled by big corporations that made extremes more extreme, bullies more cruel, racists more ignorant. All-powerful “echo chambers”.
But none of this was actually new.
In the Middle Ages, blacksmiths wanting to sell their wares learned to appeal to people’s desires. They knew people wanted power, so they started telling stories about powerful warriors attached to the swords they sold, the armours, the decoration on the helmets and the shields. With their heads filled with these stories, soldiers became more confident, more aggressive, ready to defeat their opponents and steal their power. Their victories gave blacksmiths new stories with which to market their products.. And these stories inspired the next generation of warriors to be even more ambitious, more fierce, wanting to make their names famous and their feats part of history.
This is advertising.
A mirror of society's flaws and virtues. One that creates a self-perpetuating cycle, feeding from culture and back into culture. Sometimes to a negative effect, other times quite the opposite.
Take America in the late '40s. People wanted to forget the war and look forward, so advertising sold them escapism – the American dream. A car in front of a suburban home. A can of Coke and a Christmas tale. Rock ‘n’ roll.
With the Marshall Plan, America gave us a loan to help rebuild Europe. With those dollars we bought American products, movies, cans of Coke and rock 'n’ roll. The American dream. This inspired us to look forward to a brighter future. Do more and do better. Grow together and have fun in the process. The European Union. A virtuous cycle of optimism that created growth for 30 years straight. Something never seen before.
Now, can modern advertising have a dark side? Absolutely.
Advertising can perpetuate the bad things that exist in society by reflecting them back into the world. It can deceive by not showing the full picture of what’s being sold. Or it can simply pollute people's lives with generic, endless, boring crap.
The thing is, in the long run brands that decide to pursue this line of work will struggle to compete with those that follow a different approach.
Those that choose to support and nurture the positive aspects of culture through their advertising, perpetuating ideas and behaviours that have a positive impact in people’s lives. Those that are truly transparent, take in people’s feedback and are ready to say sorry when they screw things up. Those that respect people’s privacy and always try to add value or simply entertain in every interaction with their audience.
If we want to gain the public’s trust we need to help brands get better at this. Be a better reflection of culture, one that doesn’t just generate a positive outcome “for” brands but also “from” brands.
Let’s show clients this is not just about ethics. To solve this reputation crisis we need to keep proving good advertising is not just better for business, it’s better for society.