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Building trust in UK advertising - how to make sure your ads are truthful

by Cass Coakley

February 24, 2023

Trust is essential. It means relying on others to do the right thing. Forbes described it as being “hard to define” in a 2018 leadership article, but “we do know when it’s lost. When that happens, we withdraw our energy and level of engagement”. For the advertising industry, this rings true and is shaping up to be a key focus for the year.

Life in the UK over the last few years has been unpredictable to say the least, with many things, like the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, affecting people’s finances. Consumers are now even more careful about how they choose to spend their money, meaning the need for advertising to be honest and not misleading is under more scrutiny.

So the burning question is, what affects this trust and distrust? The Advertising Association’s (AA) Credos research shows that the most significant positive driver is creative, entertaining content, followed by contributions to social causes and representations of diversity. On the other hand, the main negative driver is bombardment, followed by suspicious techniques and targeting vulnerable groups.

TV ads are broadly viewed as “the most trusted, most emotional, and most memorable form of advertising,” according to Thinkbox’s 2022 round-up. We believe the explanation for this could be the combination of pre and post-broadcast processes that TV ads go through. At Clearcast, for example, we assess every ad (that will appear on major TV channels or their VoD platforms) before broadcast. Post broadcast, the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA) assesses any that receive complaints from viewers.

As part of pre-clearance, we demand high levels of evidence to back up claims being made, which is demonstrated successfully by complaint figures. In 2022 we cleared 30,501 ads for broadcast, and only 0.07% were formally upheld by The ASA. ‘Misleading impression’ was the most common reason The ASA disagreed with our clearance decisions last year, so, making sure your ad is truthful is essential to keep it on air.

How advertisers can make sure their ads aren't misleading

  • If an offer is e.g. “Up to £100 off” your range of products, at least 10% of them have to be at the full £100 off.
  • If an offer is going to end less than two weeks after the last transmission date of your ad, you’ll need to put the offer end date in – and you should stick to that offer end date and not extend it.
  • Don’t claim something is free unless it’s genuinely additional to the offering and no prices have been hiked to take account of the ‘free ‘element.
  • Think about your wording. The use of the word ‘can’ in your ad means ‘always will’ and ‘could’ means ‘sometimes will’. Each claim will require a different level of evidence.
  • Making something subjective can help. For example, the line ‘for the best choice of X’, could be tricky to approve. Changing it to ‘our customers found their best choice of X’ is overtly subjective and can usually be approved with just an explanation from the advertiser.

We think it’s safe to assume that the reason TV ads are particularly trusted is a result of the long-standing and robust regulatory system, which handles both the prevention and intervention of misleading advertising.

However, looking more broadly at the industry as a whole, we’ve sensed a real focus on this topic from all stakeholders in recent years. The AA’s Trust Working group has been a particular driver, working with The ASA on an awareness campaign that enlisted the help of Mediacom Edinburgh, Leith agency, and household brands Churchill, IRN-BRU, Lloyds Bank, Marmite, and Tesco. Following a successful 2021 pilot study in Scotland which “increased trust of the ad industry overall” the UK-wide campaign was successfully launched in October last year.

So, with an agreed focus for the eco-system of the industry, and with a large amount of successful work already being carried out, we believe that 2023 will be the year to double down on fostering that all-important concept of trust. We’re proud to play our part in building trust in UK advertising and are looking forward to working together as a collective to take the industry further.