Don’t believe the doom mongers, trust in ads is not declining

Marketers are fond of declaring consumers don’t trust ads but the data doesn’t support it – only that they don’t like them, which is a different problem.

Most marketers believe that trust in brands is declining. I surveyed 472 marketers and they’re four times more likely to think brand trust has declined than risen over the last 20 years.

It’s not hard to fathom why. Many studies bemoan the decline of trust. The most prominent is the AA’s 2019 report entitled ‘Arresting The Decline Of Public Trust In UK Advertising’. In the foreword, Keith Weed, the former CMCO of Unilever, notes that “public trust and favourability towards the advertising industry has been in long-term decline since the early 1990s”.

What about the data?

But there’s one fundamental problem with these claims. The facts.

There is no crisis. Trust in businesses and brands is pretty flat; some sources suggest it might even be rising.

Let’s examine the data – not the headlines – from major longitudinal studies.* First, look at the AA’s own data on trust in the ad industry. It’s the line in black.

It’s pretty flat over the period. If you cut the data 2011-2017 then there’s a slight rise, if you cut it 2011-2018 then there’s a slight decline.

Second, there’s the Edelman data, this time measuring trust in business:  

This data is more positive. Each year the numbers fluctuate, but the trend is upwards. Edelman also tracks trust among the general public and that has stayed broadly flat.

And, for good measure, here’s the Ipsos Veracity Index data stretching back to 1983. It measures whether respondents trust various professions, from CEOs to politicians, to tell the truth.

The pattern depends on the industry, but most professions have flat or slightly rising levels of trust. Only the clergy have suffered significant drops.

The origins of the trust myth

If the data from these sources shows no long-term drop in trust how can the headlines make such negative claims? Let’s look at one of those data sets in detail – that of the AA.

Its report tracks two broad metrics, favourability and trust in ads. Here’s the favourability data:

Favourability drops steadily from the 1990s to 2008. After that, the decline stops, and favourability remains flat.

Here’s where the sleight of hand happens. Between 2011 and 2018 trust and favourability were both flat.

The AA report then argues that since favourability and trust behaved similarly between 2011 and 2018 then trust must have declined in the preceding years alongside favourability.

Let’s repeat that.

A report which claims trust has declined since the 1990s doesn’t even measure trust that far back, let alone show any decrease.

Why does this matter?

On the most basic level, the trust myth matters because it’s important we report the facts, not what we want to be true.

Second, there’s the opportunity cost. If we focus on boosting trust, we ignore more pressing problems, like addressing ad favourability. The tactics for improving this metric are not the same as for trust.

To increase ad favourability, we should heed the advice of Martin Boase, one of the founders of the legendary agency, BMP: “If you’re going to invite yourself into someone’s living room for 30 seconds, you have a duty not to bore them or insult them by shouting at them. On the other hand, if you can make them smile, or show them something interesting or enjoyable – if you’re a charming guest – then they might like you a bit better, and then they may be a little more likely to buy your product.”

Third, talk of crisis suggests we face sterner trust problems than our predecessors. That steers us away from proven historic tactics towards untested, new solutions. That would be a mistake.

Because if we accept that trust is low but has always been low then it makes sense to learn from those brands in the past who have successfully tackled the problem.

One effective tactic applied by historic brands comes from behavioural science – the pratfall effect. This idea from the Harvard psychologist, Eliot Aronson, suggests brands can gain trust if they admit a flaw.

Some of the greatest ad campaigns in history have applied this strategy. Consider Volkswagen’s ‘Ugly is only skin-deep’, Avis’s ‘When you’re only No. 2 you try harder’ or Stella’s ‘Reassuringly Expensive’.

What these best-in-class brands have realised is that by admitting a weakness you have tangibly proved your honesty, so all other claims become more believable. It’s a tactic that today’s brands would do well to consider.

Despite the hype, if anyone tells you about a trust crisis, best not to trust them.

*I’ve focussd on longitudinal studies as they are higher quality. If you really want to know whether trust has changed you need to compare the results from exactly the same question asked in multiple years. Asking people in a snapshot about whether they think trust has declined only tells you what people think. It doesn’t show if they’re right.



There is one comment at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Simon Hayhurst 3 Dec 2020

    Thanks for posting. Interesting feature, though I’m not sure the Stella Artois example is a good one of a brand ‘acknowledging its flaws’?

    The deliberate strategy of the ad campaign that’s quoted was for the Stella comms to position the product as expensive, but (crucially) for the in-store pricing to be deliberately mid-market.

    So when consumers saw the brand on the shelf they expected it to cost much more than was being charged; sensed a bargain, and bought it by the barrel-load.

    A pedant might therefore argue that the Stella ads were deliberately dis-honest. Cleverly setting a high price expectation to create a positive price / value gap, when in fact the quality of the product itself was nothing like that for which the advertising was claiming.

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