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Breaking news: advertising can't single-handedly save the world

Trust is a precious commodity, and the hyperbole in the IPA's latest report isn't helping anyone

By jeremy lee

While Creative Salon is embracing the joy of the festive season, some recent research from Ipsos Mori caught our attention. According to the company, the advertising profession is regarded as the least likely to tell the truth, below even politicians and journalists. There was a glimmer of hope, however: the 16 per cent of people who said they would “generally trust” ad professionals to be truthful was an increase of three percentage points on last year. So progress, of sorts.

Perhaps it’s little wonder that the industry gets a bad (and unfair) rap when there are reports such as one recently released by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Headlined “Consumers believe advertising can play role in combating climate change”, the IPA’s survey of 2000 adults said that 71 per cent of consumers believe that advertising can “play a significant role” in achieving this.

It’s that word “significant” that seems to jar. All of us believe strongly in the power of advertising to effect social change, promote choice and change perceptions (as well as shift product). But claiming that advertising is capable of saving the world is risible. There’s been some excellent work by many to make the advertising industry a fairer, more respectful and more inclusive industry to work in, and the ESG initiatives by the holding companies shows real intent. Nevertheless, the hyperbole of the IPA’s report shows why it’s still held in such poor regard by people outside of it.

Moreover, you only have to read a little bit further into the IPA’s research and you’ll find that more than two-thirds of the same respondents don’t believe the environmental claims that brands make in their ads, and a similar amount think that brands exaggerate their claims in ads. In short, they think that the industry perpetuates greenwashing – a charge that has to be taken seriously.

The report therefore is not quite as positive as the headline initially makes out. It’s also perhaps a further example of the overclaiming that seems to piss so many consumers off and probably contributes to the widespread mistrust of advertising practitioners.

While the pandemic is once again changing our working lives, climate change presents the world with an even bigger and more long-term challenge. Advertising obviously has its part to play in highlighting how brands can have a positive environmental impact and in promoting sustainable alternatives, as well as how all of us can reduce our carbon footprint. But – no matter what the IPA would like to believe – it can’t combat climate change in isolation.

With investors increasingly looking at companies’ net-zero targets and evidence of reduced emissions and the use of renewable energy, the importance of progress is clear. And so are truthful claims – whether that be the environmental impact from brands or societal impact from industry trade bodies.

And, to finish on a positive note, the recent revelations about last year’s Christmas parties in Whitehall, and what Boris Johnson did or didn’t know, will probably mean that advertising professionals will be supplanted at the bottom of the next popularity survey.


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