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The pandemic has had a positive impact on how the public views advertising, but a lack of general understanding around what the advertising industry has responsibility for continues to affect trust in the sector. The key findings from the Advertising Association (AA) and Credos around are optimistic – but also demand the industry continue to reinvent itself.

Ad industry thinktank Credos has shared research on public trust in advertising at the AA's Trust Summit 2021 suggesting a halo effect around public health-related marketing during the pandemic has increased consumer trust in ads.

It continues a reversal in public perception of advertising, which has been trending negatively until very recently. The findings show public trust in UK advertising has improved in recent years – increasing 25% since its 2015 low point – in line with other industries monitored. 

The industry is, however, still trusted among the least of any sector surveyed, suggesting that there is more work to be done in order to restore confidence. 

Credos found that ‘bombardment’ and excessive advertising was among the key drivers of distrust in advertising. Director general of the IPA Paul Bainsfair explained: “We have found that the very best advertisers and their agencies manage excessive ad frequency and retargeting well, but all the leaders we spoke to agreed that too often we don't see this prioritised sufficiently, and all agreed that it was a problem across many media formats. We think we have made some progress, raising awareness about the issue. But there is much more to be done to reduce this. And it remains a key negative driver of public trust. So it remains a challenge to be tackled.”

While bombardment, particularly around irrelevant advertising, was a core concern of older demographics, younger audiences are more concerned with misleading or ‘scam’ advertising across social platforms and email. 

Outside context problem

Credos’ Dan Wilkes noted that, while issues like scam emails do not fall under the remit of the ASA and aren’t technically advertising, the public does not make that distinction. The public also perceives that those instances have increased in frequency over the course of the pandemic, which has had a deleterious impact on public trust.

Wilkes said: “One of those [issues] is the unsolicited communications that become intrusive in places that people consider private, whether that's their email inbox landline mobile or letterbox largely seen as an annoyance in those instances for many people it quickly and commonly merges into illegal and dangerous communications in the form of scams. And this is widely believed to have increased significantly during the pandemic. 

”Now, obviously we in this room know that that's not advertising, but many people don't… there's a whole raft of non advertising that pollutes the wider advertising ecosystem. Essentially the public think this stuff is advertising, and crucially they look to us, the industry, to do something about it.”

Lack of public knowledge

The research also demonstrated, however, that public perception of advertising is boosted by excellent creative work and campaigns. It was also noted that advertising, particularly on social networks, is often seen as part and parcel of the overall experience and therefore not interruptive. Perhaps most importantly, the members of the public surveyed also noticed the industry’s attempts to make advertising more diverse and inclusive, and responded positively.

Crucially, while the public might look to the industry to solve those issues, many are still unaware that a body exists in order to solve those issues. Happily, the ASA’s Guy Parker told the Trust Summit attendees that campaigns that raise awareness of the regulatory body are demonstrated to have a positive effect on wider trust in advertising

He said: “It's never been more important to tell people this. Our Scottish ad campaign, which we launched in September, was a key way of reassuring the public that advertising is regulated, communicating that there are rules in place to protect people from misleading harmful and offensive ads, and raising awareness of the NSA and the fact that we regulate ads in all media, including online and social”.

Clearly there is still a long way to go. Speakers at the Trust Summit noted that regulatory changes and effective arbitration of ads have a positive impact on how the public perceive advertising, but that there is a lot to be done by the industry itself to restore that trust.