In ads we don't trust. In an era of deception, why should consumers believe advertising messages?

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Defining an era is always a tricky, and possibly flawed, business. The eighties were only a festival of wealth, champagne and yuppiedom for a privileged few; while the sixties cultural revolution and endless cool applied only to a narrow cross-section of society. However, I strongly suspect the 2010s are shaping up to be the age of mistrust.

It all started with the MPs' expenses outrage. Once we discovered our political representatives were up to their greedy eyeballs in a trough of public cash, our indignation soon developed into an appetite for further exposure. In 2008 it became suddenly and abundantly clear our financial institutions had been playing fast and loose with our money and economic stability. The price they paid for rescue packages was an on-going cynicism and contempt from their customers, from you and me.

Next came the newspapers. Although it was easy to believe the revelation that some red-top tabloids were nasty, venal rags, the extent of their callousness and corruption was astonishing. Subsequent arrests and accusations continue to this day.

And just this week, the first sparks of a potentially volcanic scandal, involving the fixing of oil prices, can be seen on the horizon. We'd be forgiven for thinking the planet is managed and governed by a clutch of devious, conspiring and ruthless villains. Surely our trust in corporations, governments and institutions has never been lower - and rightly so. If an individual displayed half the traits infecting the groups I've mentioned, we'd make a concerted effort to exclude them from our lives on a permanent basis.

So how does the affect advertising and marketing? Well, these industries were hardly on a strong footing before any of these scandals broke. Mistrust has been hard-wired into the advertising industry's relationship with the public for decades. In fact, it's probably the tallest hurdle to overcome when planning and executing a campaign. Most advertising is instinctively disbelieved by its audience.

Which is why it's so disappointing to see that Skechers, the sports shoe people, have been hauled over the coals in America for making wildly inaccurate claims for their toning trainers. These are the sneakers with the curved soles, endorsed by a string of celebrities and promising weight-loss and toned legs. In a lengthy court case, a judge has instructed the manufacturer to refund $40 - $84 to at least 520,000 people who bought the shoes. He also found the health-giving claims to be without scientific or medical foundation. In American terms, it was all BS.
Naturally, Skechers deny this, insisting they have settled only to avoid further legal protraction - but the evidence is pretty damning.
Quite why established and successful companies embark on deceptive campaigns such as this is baffling to me. Yes, I realise they do it to shift units, but that hardly makes sense as a strategy when the blowback is so damaging to the brand. Someone, somewhere must have imagined it was worth gambling the company's reputation to sell a few more trainers, hoping the misleading selling points would never be uncovered. Unfortunately, the gamble has failed spectacularly.

Apart from the obvious foolishness of duping your customers, the whole 'trust what we say' advertising model is both archaic and largely broken. A 2012 Neilsen survey* found trust in traditional marketing messages had declined by 24% since 2009. That is a massive fall and a huge problem. Put simply, even if an advertiser's claims are completely honest and proven, a significant chunk of its audience is extremely dubious. Once a firm like Sketchers has been exposed as deceptive, that belief level will plummet - simultaneously dragging down general trust in advertising.

The only messaging in which consumers seem to have faith, according to the same research, comes from third-parties. That is, testimonials and recommendations from other customers, published and verified on review websites and social media.

So the lessons are clear. In the era of mistrust, advertisers need the confidence of customers more than ever; lying to your audience is the worst marketing tactic in the box - and simply telling people your product or service is great no longer cuts much ice. Whether we like it or not, consumer trust is now so fragile, it cannot be bought or manipulated - it has to be earned.   

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant


*Global Trust In Advertising and Brand Messages, Nielsen 2012



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