Bold claims from adland have left us inured to deception. York Mix/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Are we so used to corporate deception that we just don’t care?

Back in the old days, plain old products became “brands” when shoppers trusted them to deliver superior performance. Along the way brand advertising arose as a way of boosting consumption and building trust. In 1946 Procter and Gamble claimed that “Tide gets clothes cleaner than any other wash day product you can buy”. Such was P&G’s confidence that it offered shoppers a full money back guarantee. This was the classic “reason why” advertising and signified a golden age when advertisers enjoyed high levels of consumer trust.

Promises, promises., Author provided

Fast-forward 70 years and TV, one of the most trusted advertising formats, is only trusted by 56% of people. So how did we get here?

There’s a clue in the stats from the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which protects consumers from harmful, misleading or offensive advertising. Last year it received more than 37,000 complaints. As a result over 3,000 advertisements were changed or withdrawn.

One of the reasons for that is that advertisers are always looking for an edge, and that includes “reason why” advertising designed to communicate how the product is different. It doesn’t matter how – just that it is different. It may be how the brand performs on an attribute valued by customers. Or in the case of Mars Treets from the 1960s a claim that it “melts in your mouth not in your hand”.

Broadband internet providers find it hard to be different and the focus of their advertising has typically been on price. This is known to be the most important attribute shaping consumer buying decisions. Following an investigation, however, the ASA and Ofcom discovered that “people expected to be misled by broadband ads” and that around 80% of customers are unable to calculate the total costs of their contract.

Oh what a tangled web … stuart anthony/Flickr, CC BY-NC

As a result of the ASA’s investigation, broadband ads should now be designed to allow easier price comparisons rather than to “confuse or mislead”. But, in many advertisements the focus is not on price but on other performance cues used by consumers as a “reason why”. And of course, performance claims should be both practical and verifiable such as “Tide washes clothes cleaner” or “Fairy lasts longer”.

In 2009, the advertisement for Olay’s “Definity Eye Illuminator” eye cream featuring Twiggy claimed to “reduce the look of wrinkles and dark circles for brighter, young-looking eyes”. People complained that the model’s eye regions were airbrushed and not achieved by use of the product alone. The ASA agreed that the ad misled customers and it was subsequently banned.

In other cases, you might get a chance to prove your claim. This was the case when Reebok said its Easytone trainers helped you to “better legs and a better bum with every step”. For many consumers this is a very compelling reason why. Sadly though, the performance advantage couldn’t be verified through scientific evidence, the ad was banned, and the company fined.

Fairy nuff

The weight of all these cases means we might not have the same confidence while shopping for Tide washing powder in the early 1950s. But you do get the odd bright spot in the gloom. The makers of Persil objected to a claim from P&G that its Fairy Liquid dishwashing detergent lasted “twice as long as the next best selling brand”. But after rigorous testing the ASA found that the product did indeed last “at least” twice as long as Persil.

Sometimes brands get public and media scrutiny without any explicit claims or complaints but for what customers “infer” from advertisements or product packaging. Tesco was recently been under fire for its new range of “fictional farm” brands – a bucolic bit of packaging which sells food under a range of homely titles. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for shoppers to expect that a chicken branded as “Willow Farm” at least began its life on something called Willow Farm, or that their punnet of strawberries was really picked at a farm called “Rosedene”. Mind you, the approach has also been used by Aldi for years. So do we really mind?

And fake farms, after all, are small beer. The recent scandals at Volkswagen and Mitsubishi witnessed advertising that was based on something that then turned out to be untrue. This has far more serious consequences. Those “reasons why” of importance to car buyers – power outputs, emissions and fuel consumption figures – often feature prominently in advertisements. The Mitsubishi scandal in Japan involved manipulated fuel economy tests.

Tarnished. Paul/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

With so many incidents of consumers being misled, it’s not surprising that the majority of people trust personal recommendations much more than ads. And so it might seem odd that brands seem to be able to recover relatively quickly. After Volkswagen’s emissions scandal – the biggest corporate scandal of recent years – the brand dropped to the bottom of the BrandIndex list (a measure of brand quality, value and reputation).

Just three months later it’s up from 35th place to 18th. Rehabilitation of the share performance is also back on track – up 26% since its February low and according to analysts VW is an “investable company” again.

There are clearly short-term consequences of misleading ads in the form of bans and fines and more serious consequences for instances of proven deception. But in the long run how much does it really matter? Our trust in advertising might now be so low that we are happy to let misrepresentation and even downright fraud wash over us as we keep heading for the tills.

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