Management

The Credibility Crisis

In a world of “fake news,” “alt facts,” “crooked media” and terrible Tweets, consumers are asking the biggest question since “who shot JR?”— namely, who do you trust?

It’s certainly not the political and ideological spinmeisters floating around Washington’s bureaucratic swamp who have been responsible for adding these dubious phrases to our lexicon. It seems to have been summed up in the recent issue of Time, whose cover story with President Donald Trump ran under the headline — Is Truth Dead?

A logical ask since the world — politically and ideologically — is more polarized than ever and untruths have reached epidemic proportions. But let’s bring all this down to ground level for the industry.

Poison Pens

Quite simply, the toxic political environment will not only have an impact on healthcare costs and tax reform, but also on all channels of communication.

As such, the days of emotional and sometimes questionable product pitches from the likes of dandy Don Draper and his happy band of gin-soaked Mad Avenue ad-verts are finally over.

In fact, given the consumer climate, you have to wonder if the credibility of advertising, retail and associated brands are at risk. If so, the last man standing might be a 19-year-old blogger in Milwaukee?

I’m being a bit facetious, but media just ain’t what it used to be! And some pundits are forecasting significantly lower ad spending this year. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the evolution of social media and peoples’ rejection of traditional media outlets. We are facing what Ad Age has termed “A Crisis in Credibility.”

Some fairly draconian measures to avert these crises, or minimalize them, are going global.

Fining Social Media

The German government, already known for its zero-tolerance policies, has drafted a law that would impose fines of up to 50 million euros, or about $54 million, on social networks that don’t delete hate speech or fake news. The impetus for this was a social media report that Germany’s oldest church was set on fire by a mob of 1,000 people.

Under the new rules, users of social networks can report stories they believe are fake which are then flagged and sent to Correctiv, a third-party fact-checking firm. Some would call it a fake news filtering tool. However, this doesn’t eliminate the problem entirely nor does it give social networks a new façade of credibility.

As the saying goes, nothing that appears on the internet ever really disappears. At Facebook, unreliable stories will be “de-prioritized” by the company’s news feed algorithm. But this simply means that fewer people will see the story. It’s like pleading “nolo contendre” in a legal action — a watered-down attempt to free oneself from the burden of responsibility.

Other offensives have been launched to avoid what might be seen as guilt by association or proximity. Havas Media Group in the UK, which represents clients like Hyundai, Domino’s and the BBC, has pulled all ad spending from Google and YouTube in order to distance said clients from questionable material. This is creating more of a firestorm in the digital ad business, which is already under scrutiny.

Mounting Losses

Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, has promised to stop paying for any digital media that doesn’t meet its own stringent criteria for credibility. And it’s urging the rest of the industry to follow their lead.

It’s been said that potential advertisers are so pissed at YouTube for not policing its content that advertising losses could reach $750 million. A number of industry sources believe this could signal “a flight to quality,” giving traditional media outlets an opportunity to win back some of the readership and viewership they’ve lost to digital platforms.

Looking ahead, some believe it’s possible that new rules or guidelines from the credibility cops might be applied to products, pricing or promotional claims by vendors and retailers. Even more grim is the possibility that consumers will reject all brand messaging.

Let’s face facts! Truth in advertising has never been, nor will it ever be, a priority despite all the legislation and good intentions. We are in an industry that thrives on hyperbole—aspirational messages designed to appeal to the consumer psyche. As beauty doyen Helena Rubinstein once said: “We don’t sell products. We sell hope.”

But hope fades and the greatest danger is that the public views all messaging with disdain and distrust, believing that brands and retailers are engaged in a willing deception or intent to deceive.

Feeling Deceived

We may already be seeing the tip of the iceberg. The Gallup Organization reports that trust in mass media is down to 32 percent among Americans, versus 50 percent 10 years ago. One reason is the emergence of sponsored articles or videos that look like traditional editorials. A survey by Radium Global Market Research found that more than half of respondents felt deceived by such advertising.

As this kind of pushback continues—and there’s little doubt it will—retailers and brands must reassess their fundamental values and messaging. Some companies might have to eliminate excessive claims that only create suspicion among consumers and make 100 percent sure they’re prepared to back up the ones they do make. Additionally, present facts in a clear and precise way and develop a fact–based story and message that captures people’s attention as well as their emotions. And above all,  be consistent.

In many ways, a company’s credibility, authenticity, and overall reputation are more important to its survival than products. Put another way—words matter!

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