Ipsos MORI Thinks

Trust and advertising

SALLY LAIRD Research Director

VANESSA WEST Research Director

No one really trusts ads, do they? All the smiling, happy people and amazing claims. But while we may take the promises of whiter whites and reduced fine lines with a pinch of salt, advertising still works!

In the world of advertising, not all ads are created equal – in particular when it comes to trust. While the secretive, targeted adverts used on Facebook during the EU referendum campaign may have shaken trust in advertising (and democracy), wide-reaching traditional media, such as TV and print ads, still actually play a key role in developing, sustaining, and (re)building consumer trust.

First, they are in the public domain and highly visible. Everyone – from the public to the regulators – can see the advertising and hold brands to account if there is dissonance between claims and reality (unlike the above mentioned targeted Facebook ads used during the EU referendum, invisible to huge swathes of the population).76 Secondly, advertising is regulated in many markets and brands cannot make unsubstantiated claims without challenge. As discussed in the article on the drivers of trust, whether an organisation is seen as open and transparent is vital to trustworthiness. Advertising can be key to this.

Brands can use advertising to leverage trust. McDonald’s, one of the original ‘villains’ of the fast food industry, was the subject of intense negative speculation about its ingredients and production methods. By the mid-2000s trust in the brand had hit an all-time low,77 with the ‘Super-Size Me’ documentary a driving force in consumers questioning the quality of McDonald’s produce (rumours included ‘mutant laboratory meat’, ‘fries that fail to decompose – ever’ and ‘chicken nuggets formed from pink slime’).

While many would have sought to ignore the rumours for fear of fuelling them further, the brand tackled them head on. They launched a new campaign centred on the ‘Good to know’ theme, addressing some of the chicken myths (beaks in McNuggets) and dispelling them in a light-hearted way. At a time of increasing interest in the provenance of ingredients, the ads seemed to strike a chord with the British public. In the late 2000s, McDonald’s sales steadily grew by over 50%!78

Of course, tackling misconceptions is one thing, but when you have misled customers – such as Tesco and horsemeat, or Volkswagen and emissions – a very different strategy is required. In both these situations we can see similar steps underlying the response:

  1. Admit to your mistakes in a bid to draw a line under them and move forwards. Both Tesco and Volkswagen did just that. Both ran press ads in national newspapers admitting their mistakes and apologising. Being open and honest, even if what you say isn’t always positive, will help people to trust you in the long run.
  2. Communicate the action you’re taking as a result – Tesco refunded all affected customers and increased transparency in its supply chain in a bid to be more open about where produce comes from. Volkswagen offered affected customers money off a new Volkswagen and three years of free roadside assistance.
  3. When the time is right, remind people why they fell in love with you in the first place and promote those values in communicating the brand’s purpose for the future.

Volkswagen, by adhering to these principles, saw record sales in 2017, recording an overall rise of 3.8%,79 becoming the world’s biggest car manufacturer, despite its emissions scandal.

Once you’ve regained the public’s trust, you may expect to see it pay dividends. Our research shows that consumers are more likely to see and believe advertising from companies that they trust. But more importantly, they are also more likely to act on this advertising by purchasing goods and services from the brand. Two thirds of people (64%) say they are willing to pay more for a product from a brand they trust a great deal.80

Trust is a nebulous concept, but we think there are principles which brands can adhere to in order to build, or rebuild consumer trust: get your brand values right, be transparent about what you do, communicate this to consumers in the right way, and most importantly, do your utmost to follow through on who you say you are!

Trust: The Truth?

We decided to write this report because we wanted to test if the prevailing narrative matched the data. The ‘truth about trust’ is that trust is complex, and takes many forms (many of these forms are not in crisis or decline). Without some degree of trust society simply would not function…