Study: As It Turns Out, People Actually Trust (Some Types Of) Ads



We’ve heard time and time again that “consumers don’t trust ads.” But is this blanket statement telling the entire story?


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After years of industry discourse around consumers’ declining trust and responsiveness to advertising, driving the growth of earned media strategies like influencer marketing and native advertising, new research has emerged that could cause marketers to question the advertising doomsday narrative.

A study from Northwestern University professor Kent Grayson and Seattle University professor Matthew Isaac suggests that consumers have more trust in advertising than the marketing community has previously believed.

The researchers surveyed 400 participants and asked them to weigh in on a range of tactics employed in traditional TV and digital advertising. Of the 20 tactics, the respondents were favorable toward 13 of them. These favorable tactics included price-matching, promoting positive ratings and reviews, and “social proof” tactics such as touting a favorable endorsement from a trusted third-party (e.g. the U.S. News & World Report annual top colleges list).

These findings seem to run counter to previous studies which indicate an overall decline in consumer trust in traditional advertising. Nielsen’s oft-cited Global Trust in Advertising report found that far more consumers trust word of mouth than traditional ad formats. Much has also been written about the millennial generation of consumers, and the generations that follow, which are perceived as being less trusting of ads than prior generations.

Grayson told the New York Times that the team fielded the study to explore the potential nuances to the “people don’t trust ads anymore” narrative. “The truth is, there is a lot of advertising that [consumers] do trust,” he said.

The discrepancy between this latest study and the Nielsen study might be a matter of semantics–that is, what constitutes “advertising” anyway? Most brand strategists and marketers would look to things like reviews and awards as earned media tactics that do not fall under the umbrella of traditional advertising.

Of interesting note, one of the tactics to receive unfavorable responses was using paid celebrity endorsements to promote products and brands. Given the rise of influencer marketing and the number of online personalities hawking products to their audiences, the world of buying influence could be a slippery slope for advertisers if they treat those partnerships as they would celebrity endorsements. In Grayson and Isaac’s study, consumers used words like “deceptive” and “manipulative” to describe paid endorsements.

One of the key themes to come out of this latest study: transparency, or as Isaac calls it, “transparency in the intent.” Perhaps people don’t mind advertising as much if they are clear as to why they’re being messaged to and can discern some tangible benefit from the brand interaction.

Zambezi founder Chris Raih astutely points out to the Times that more than skeptical, today’s consumers are informed. “They know how the machine works,” he said, citing the fact that people understand things like retargeting and why brands market to them in certain spaces. This means that some of the “mystique” of advertising has diminished, he said.

While marketers have been seeing the same stats cited in conference keynotes for years, the researchers warn that consumers’ responsiveness to various ad types is not a black-and-white issue. The way people feel about various tactics can be quite fluid and are expected to change over time. As Isaac told the Times, there’s a lot of talk about marketers being behind the times when it comes to reaching consumers, but they might find some optimism in this study.

For all the effort marketers are putting into making their ads look like anything but ads, perhaps the real opportunity lies in owning their truths and creating valuable, straightforward advertising experiences that are built on a promise of full transparency.


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