Do you want the good news or the bad news?
People don’t like or trust advertising as much as they used to. Robert Bain asks Karen Fraser of industry think tank Credos how we got here and what can be done about it.
When the advertising think tank Credos was launched last year, its first act was to put together a report on “what the UK really thinks” of advertising. It begins with a graph showing the public’s attitude to advertising over the last two decades, as measured in the Advertising Association’s surveys. It paints a pretty sobering picture.
“There’s a lot of money being spent and a lot of clever people doing a lot of good work, but at some point it’s not translating into the best possible ways of reaching people”
Back in the 1990s the line marked ‘favourable’ soared safely above the one marked ‘unfavourable’. But over the years they have edged gradually closer together, and it looks like the unfavourables will soon outnumber the favourables.
Why do people not like – or trust – adverts as much as they used to, and what can be done about it? It was to answer these questions that Credos came into being, and its director Karen Fraser is the woman charged with finding out.
Fraser is used to studying how businesses are viewed by the public. In the past she has worked as a research director at ad agency Leo Burnett and Turner Broadcasting, and with her own consultancy she established an index of ethical reputation for companies.
There are plenty of theories why the public’s view of advertising has got worse in recent years. And it’s not a problem unique to advertising – politicians, journalists and other professions face low levels of trust. What’s certain is that the trend is bound to have significant implications for the industry.
Fraser told Research: “That decline [in trust] was causing some consternation for advertisers, for agencies, for media owners. We wanted to try and understand what was behind that. We were very concerned that it could have negative implications for the industry in the way that politicians see us. It makes advertising, marketing, communications more vulnerable to politicians’ whims if we’re seen to be less liked or less favoured by the public.”
It’s an urgent problem, Fraser says, but she knows there’s no quick fix. “There’s been a slow decline over a number of years – it’s not something that would be turned around quickly. But I think we’re certainly on the right track.”
Good ads, bad ads
The main things that people say they don’t like about advertising are the feelings of bombardment and intrusion by ads that are irrelevant, patronising or just plain rubbish. It’s a “pretty damning” list of complaints, Fraser says. “There’s a lot of money being spent and a lot of clever people doing a lot of good work, but at some point it’s not translating into the best possible ways of reaching people,” she says. “So there is work to do.”
“It takes some guts to deliver bad news to an organisation. You’re not necessarily called on to say where they’re messing up. It’s a brave director who’s going to task you with that question and I suspect it doesn’t happen as often as it might”
Issues that raise particular concerns are, not surprisingly, advertising to children, advertising alcohol and unhealthy foods, the effect of ads on body image and how companies handle personal data.
Credos published reviews of the existing research on some of these topics soon after it was set up last year. Their work on alcohol advertising highlighted gaps in the existing information and called for more research from the drinks industry and health bodies to come up with conclusive evidence. The work on children found that parents don’t feel they know enough about their children’s use of media (particularly unregulated digital media) – but that they are not nearly as concerned about this as they are about things like education, crime and career prospects for their kids.
The organisation’s most recent piece of work showed just how dim a view young women take of Photoshopping in beauty ads (see box below), and was warmly welcomed by advertisers such as Boots and P&G as well as by interested MPs, Fraser says.
More than meets the eye
Credos’s Pretty as a Picture study, published in December last year, aimed to bring the consumer’s voice into the debate about Photoshopping of models in advertising.
It found that even minor cosmetic changes are rejected by the majority of young women, and pointed to support for a wider range of sizes, shapes and skin tones in ads.
To conduct the research, Jo Rigby of Omnicom interviewed 24 girls aged 10–18 and – separately – their mothers. An online survey was also conducted among 1,000 girls aged 10–21.
The research found that young women know what airbrushing is, they question brands that use it in their ads, and they are less trustful of brands that alter the way their models look. They prefer images that haven’t been altered, and a significant majority say it’s unacceptable even to erase blemishes or spots on models in their ads.
Almost half said that if brands use cosmetic airbrushing, it made them less inclined to believe what the brand said.
Fraser said: “The women we spoke to aren’t anti-beauty – they still love glamour and they want to look good, but they reject fake beauty. I think that’s a fantastic message for our creative industries because photographers and make-up and lighting specialists can work magic, and I think that we’ve swung so far in one direction that maybe it’s time to come back again. We’re just giving some guidance that younger women tend to prefer more natural, lighter use of these kinds of techniques.”
Credos bills itself as “independently governed” but not independent because, as Fraser says, “we’re patently not”. The organisation is after all backed by the industry and operates out of the offices of the Advertising Association. “Our starting point is pro-advertising,” she says. “We start from the view that we think advertising is beneficial for people, for the economy, for jobs, for innovation and competition. However we recognise that nothing’s ever perfect, and to protect the long-term health of the industry we’re going to have to point to any areas that we’re not quite getting right, particularly from the consumer’s perspective, so that we can take action to self-regulate before it’s required of us by government.”
That means Credos has to pose the questions that advertisers sometimes find it difficult to face up to. “Is your company ready to face the truth about advertising?” asks the back page of Credos’s latest publication.
Fraser says: “If you’re working with an organisation it takes some guts to deliver bad news, and frequently you’re not rewarded for delivering the less good news. You’re tracking stuff, you’re monitoring campaigns, you’re providing consumer insight, but you’re not necessarily called on to say where they’re messing up. It’s a very brave director who’s going to task you with that particular question, and I suspect it doesn’t happen as often as it might.”
She is satisfied that Credos has a mandate to tell the truth and to present results that may not always be “as welcome or as palatable as people would like. Every single time I’ve raised that with our executive board, the response has been, ‘You’ve got to be honest. You need to be transparent as much as you possibly can, because if you’re not it’s going to come back and bite you,” she said.
“That’s the whole purpose of what we’ve set up – a robust evidence base to counter some of the wilder claims of people who are seeking to attack advertising and marketing. We come across a lot of research from NGOs and other bodies that would shock the readers of Research,” says Fraser. “We will see recommendations that are based on one focus group of people who haven’t even experienced the thing they’re discussing. Or recommendations that appear to bear little relationship to the original data. It happens again and again. So a big part of our role, I think, is to try and uphold the standard of evidence that’s provided. Although people might look at Credos and say, ‘They could be a bit biased,’ I don’t think we could be anywhere near as biased as some of the research that comes across my desk.”
Fraser leads a team of just three at Credos and relies heavily on external research providers. The organisation’s reports have drawn on work by agencies such as BrainJuicer, ComRes and Acacia Avenue, and Credos has the support of an advisory board that includes Will Hutton of the Work Foundation, Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy UK and James Best of advertising standards committee CAP.
Fraser says: “We’ve had really generous benefits in kind from Kantar, from Dipsticks, from Warc, from the Future Foundation. They’ve all helped us by providing pro bono services to better understand what’s going on. We did some work with BrainJuicer on our first piece of consumer work and I really liked their FaceTrace methodology. It helped us understand that reflex reaction that people have when you ask them, ‘What do you think about advertising?’
“Part of Credos’s role is to garner as much knowledge as we can from the industry and we’re really keen to hear from other organisations that feel they could add to our understanding,” says Fraser.
“Advertising affects our society, our culture and the economy. I’m aware that a great deal of work has been done on this subject and I’d love to know what people think and what currently exists so we’re not overlooking some fantastic understanding.”