Advertising has an image problem. It’s a terrible irony and an inconvenient truth for all of us who ply our trade in that big tent.
But we can’t pretend it’s not the case; the year began with the Advertising Association’s gloomy declaration that trust in advertising is at an all-time low. Worse still: of all the industries measured, ours was in last place.
Given the AA’s specific diagnosis – that advertising’s calamitous loss of favourability over the past 20 years is due primarily to the public’s sense of being both publicly and privately "bombarded" with messaging – it’s difficult not to attribute much of the trust deficit to the internet’s myriad impacts.
Advertising has done much more than just fill the funding vacuum left by the internet’s beautifully idealistic design as a free information resource for everybody. Indeed, the chase for advertising dollars has corrupted the new social commons just as certainly as it has built it. The extraordinary enrichment of its major players has come at considerable cost to the previously benign ecosystem of advertiser, publisher and audience.
The only upside of a burning platform, of course, is that it unequivocally demands action – and this we are finally seeing. While the likes of Facebook scramble their way to the right side of the argument, a series of industry-wide trust initiatives have been launched by our trade bodies.
Brand safety, ad fraud, excessive frequency and regulation loom large on the agendas. All of this is to be welcomed as we try to rebuild the fragile contract between advertiser and audience, but the danger is that we simply repair rather than revitalise our industry.
Happily, there’s another drum we should also be beating as we attempt to rebuild trust and solve that image problem. In short: reminding people that advertising does good. (And I don’t just mean by making media cheaper. That’s a double-edged sword, as we’ve seen.)
The AA’s report concluded that "promoting and enhancing advertising’s positives is just as important as addressing its negatives". In that spirit, I think it’s time for our industry to stand more fully behind the work we do for unarguably good causes, whether that’s raising awareness of male suicide or encouraging wider female participation in sport. To lend our collective weight to the AA’s "trust action five".
Most agencies will have their own version of this. My own recruits nurses (for the NHS); encourages victims and survivors of child sex abuse to come forward (the Truth Project); deepens the understanding and funding of heart-related diseases (for the British Heart Foundation); promotes outdoor play (with Persil). None of this work is pro bono, by the way; this is what we do – and I could go on.
But there will also be moments of collective pride that we should seize, regardless of competitive rivalries. Right now, for example, there’s a small but worthwhile tribute to 100 years of public-health advertising at the Museum of Brands. It includes the towering example of the "Don’t die of ignorance" campaign that nipped the Aids epidemic in the bud here in the 1980s and – decades later – still explains the dramatically lower incidence of the disease in the UK, let alone the relative absence of stigma here. It’s impossible to walk away clinging to the belief that advertising is de facto a bad thing.
As David Droga recently observed: "People don’t like advertising, until their cat goes missing." As usual, he’s on point and not just because a missing cat brings emotional urgency to communication from the owner. A missing cat is also deemed by the audience to be a worthwhile "reason why" for the sudden proliferation of heartfelt A4 in local shop windows. (I write as a dog lover.)
I can’t be certain how effective missing-cat advertising is. But I do know that the goodwill that advertising enjoys when it is employed for social good, rather than just commercial purposes, is a potential trust lifeline for our industry. And at a time when more and more brands are purpose-led, we should be better-placed than ever to draw strength from both the causes we promote and the way we do so.
When advertising does good – especially if it is good also – good things happen in turn. Our audiences are appreciative, our licence to operate is discreetly renewed and our talent walks taller. Let’s shout about the good we do.
Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London