By Bruce Goldman
Probably less than you realize.
According to a Harris Interactive survey made public this month, fewer than one in five American adults -- a mere 19% -- believe that advertising tells the truth all or most of the time. That's the bad news. The good news is that only about two-thirds as many -- 13% -- believe that advertising's always lying. A majority -- 65% -- believe that ads sometimes make honest claims and sometimes make dishonest ones, and 85% said that ads tell the truth at least sometimes.
Some consumers are more trusting than others
While the figures show little variation according to gender, age or presence of children in the household, one significant bump stands out: 20% more younger adults, ages 18 to 44, believe advertising is honest all or most of the time than their elders do -- 25% versus 19%. Maybe it takes decades longer to build up an immunity.
Another survey question, tabbed by age and level of education, asked whom consumers trusted most to keep advertising honest -- the industry itself, government regulators or neither. Across all groups, about half with relatively little variation (50% ± about 6%) preferred neither. Interestingly, though, the biggest percentage of all segments -- 38% of those with postgraduate education -- preferred government regulation. This coincides with the demographic (the higher educated) that supports big-government intervention in general -- TARP, Obamacare, quantitative easing, etc.
What's true isn't necessarily believable
Ironically, advertising claims in various media have been subjected to scrutiny for decades. Until broadcast deregulation and the rise of unregulated cable, the big three television networks required commercials to be approved by their standards departments, both in storyboard and again in produced form, before the spot could air. Part of this process required that every claim the commercial made be substantiated in writing. The FDA continues to police pharamceutical advertising to weed out false claims, particularly of efficacy. The FTC has been known to subject advertisers to severe penalties for misleading advertising. So why, then, don't people believe what they see, hear and read?
What the headline giveth, the lawyer taketh away
It's harder to believe broad claims, no matter how true they may be, when a series of tiny footnotes, or television supers, or that sped-up reading of disclaimers at the end of radio or television commercials seems to undercut them.
Company lawyers who review advertising are often so concerned with preventing lawsuits that in addition to loading down the advertising with all kinds of unnecessary disclaimers (One commercial showing kids playing with a toy truck in a pile of dirt was required to add a super saying, "Dirt not included."), they make the advertising qualify strong claims almost out of existence. The product doesn't do something, it "virtually" does something. The skin cream doesn't remove wrinkles, it removes "the appearance of" wrinkles. While this may work fine before a judge, it's made the jury known as consumers leery of claims that are given with one hand only to be weaseled away by the other.
Advertisers can be their own worst enemies
But all too often, the reason advertising isn't believed is that it just doesn't sound true. It's not enough for the message to be clear or even true; it also has to be written and constructed to sound convincing. Ed McCabe, one of New York's outstanding copywriters and creative directors of the '70s, used to talk about writing ads with one statement that the consumer mentally says "uh-huh" to, leading to another the consumer agrees with, and so on, so that by the time he or she gets to the main sales points, the consumer is, as McCabe put it, trapped in a web of logic.
People make most, if not all, purchase decisions emotionally, but they search for fact and logic to justify those nonrational decisions.
Tone of voice, casting, attitude, absence of cheesiness, production value, construction of your case and the nature of the sales points themselves all add up to credibility -- or in some cases total lack of it. That's why so many more Richmonders who watch television believe Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen than, say, Joel Bieber.