Pulling our ethical pants up

Trust me, I’m a doctor. That works.

Trust me, I’m in advertising. Not so much.

At the Advertising Association’s Lead 2015 conference last week, Richard Eyre focused our industry’s mind on a shared problem, an image problem: advertising isn’t trusted enough and isn’t seen as ethical enough. He called for a ‘new deal’ for advertising that reflects how the principles of good business have changed in recent years.

Doing business now should not be just about making as much money as possible within the law; the best businesses recognise that being ethical actually makes good business sense – get caught with your ethical pants down and the world can find out instantly, mobilise and act against you.

So it follows that the attitude which has held sway in advertising – that if it’s legal to sell it, it’s legal to advertise it – is looking less fit for purpose because it neatly avoids any need to take an ethical stance. We just fire the gun; we don’t decide if the bullets are legal. I couldn’t agree more and I’m looking forward to the TV industry playing its full part in brokering the new deal and increasing trust.

TV is in a stronger/less weak position than most. Because it is rigorously regulated and held up to the highest standards of scrutiny TV is the most trusted form of advertising. In fact, IpsosMediaCT’s annual ‘TV Nation’ research for us – which tracks attitudes to advertising – found that in the last two years trust in TV advertising has in fact increased.

To put this in context, yes TV came top but still only with 37% of the UK trusting its advertising, so more needs to be done here clearly. TV isn’t faultless and, because it is so powerful, it has extra responsibility to be careful in the impact it can have on vulnerable groups – witness the lobbying around watersheds for certain categories.

The least trusted forms of advertising are online, according to Ipsos. And, before you start, this isn’t me sticking a competitive boot into the internet; increasing amounts of TV advertising are consumed online, and TV + online is the best advertising partnership in town. We have skin in the game.

But the fact is that Ipsos found just 7% of people trust advertising on websites, 3% trust online search, and 3% trust advertising in social media. This has something to do with the ethics of how we deliver advertising to people – ethics touch every area of our industry, not just the content we create. Unscrupulous practices in online advertising are a hot topic. Recent research from Rapp and InSkin Media found that over 60% of their 1,600 panel had removed cookies because of irritating retargeting. 12% (19% of 20-29 year olds) had contacted a brand to complain about online ads.

Being ethical also has ramifications for how we research and talk about media, particularly how we talk about competitors. God knows since Thinkbox was set up 10 years ago we’ve spent a disproportionate amount of our time dealing with shoddy research specifically manufactured and marketed to knock TV. I’d love a code of ethics in media research.

And then there is the question of ethics in media planning and buying. Why are advertisers starting to set up their own trading desks?  Is media neutrality dead as profit margins rule? Are clients getting what they pay for? Just today, a report from Oxford BioChronometrics claims that between 88% and 98% of online ad engagement is fraudulent. That’s practically all of it. If this is true – and I find it hard to believe it can be – we’ve gone through the looking glass. I thought Google’s saying over half of online ads weren’t seen by humans was shocking. Turns out that might have been reassuring.

All areas of advertising need some rehab if we are to re-build trust generally. And, as well as taking a more ethical and responsible stance, a key part of this is communicating the huge benefits that advertising brings to people. Step forward the AA brandishing its third installment of ‘Advertising Pays’ by Deloitte. It has revealed how, without advertising, much of the UK’s media, culture and sport would be unsustainable in its current form. Advertising helps fund the quality content that people love. Our job now is to make everyone from clients to consumers love the quality of our industry.

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