Media Metrics: Something You Can Trust

  • by July 29, 2005
Consumers don't trust marketing and brands the way they used to. With product placement, outlandish reality tv plotlines, and event sponsorship and promotion now pushed to the limit, it's no wonder consumers have rather jaundiced views of marketers and advertising. "Give us a break, will ya?," they seem to say. Flogged by overt and surreptitious messages, many people are not only tuning out tv, but becoming increasingly numb to other media as well.

Consumers don't trust the media, but can you blame them? The scandal that rocked the world's greatest newspaper sparked a wave of similar imbroglios and deepened consumers' existing skepticism of the news media.

Consumer loyalty is, in general, a fickle thing, so media asked InsightExpress, a Stamford, Conn.-based online market research firm, to field an online survey querying consumers about their levels of trust in the media, corporations, brands, and advertising. Among the most notable of the survey's findings is that consumer trust in advertising has plunged 41 percent over the past three years, and 59 percent of those polled say they distrust ads; only 10 percent say they actually trust ads.

"Trust has dropped severely in three years; it's just not good," says Lee Smith, president and coo (chief operating officer) of InsightExpress. "There's nothing worse than people feeling like they've been deceived. Consumers believe they're not being told the full truth."

While 56.2 percent of those polled report their trust in ads hasn't changed in three years, Smith is troubled by the 41 percent drop. Moreover, he says, marketers ought to be concerned: "It's kind of disturbing to see that [only] 10 percent of consumers say they trust advertising. That kind of epitomizes the status of the advertising industry today." Smith adds that consumers know they're being marketed to and are often offended by it. "The other part is that consumers feel that rather than spending their time trying to trick consumers, marketers should spend it trying to build good products and we'll all be better off."

Meanwhile, 31.2 percent of respondents say they "neither trust nor distrust" ads they see, while 37.4 percent distrust them "somewhat," and 21.2 percent distrust them "very much." Only 9.4 percent of those polled say they "trust somewhat" the ads they see and 0.9 percent trust them "very much."

Among the many cynical responses to this question: "Some things just are too good to be true, and I don't like how people lie about it, like McDonald's food," "They may tell you some of the truth but there are always hidden catches," "One word: Spam," "They lie to get business," and "Many ads offer something that is physically impossible or logically improbable." One of our favorites: "Ads must be viewed as a sales tool. At best, they are entertaining, [but] anyone who actually believes them is in a state of arrested development."

Asked to identify their level of awareness of specific corporate scandals including those involving Enron, mci WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Tyco, 80 percent of respondents indicated their awareness of those debacles with only 10 percent willing to purchase products or services from the companies involved, 26.9 percent "unwilling," and 13.1 percent "extremely unwilling." Interestingly, 49.9 percent were neutral, noting that they are "neither willing or unwilling" to do business with scandal-tainted companies. By the same token, 30.6 percent of respondents indicate that these events make them trust corporations "somewhat less" and 16.7 percent report "significantly less." Still, 49 percent report their trust levels in corporations hasn't changed amid the backdrop of scandal.

Feeding into the word-of-mouth marketing trend, 64 percent of the survey's participants say recommendations from family members, friends, or colleagues increase their level of trust when purchasing a product or service. Only prior experience with a product, brand, or company ranks higher at 80.6 percent, while reviews by third-party organizations came in at 42.9 percent.

Categorizing trust by form of media, newspapers came out on top, with 46 percent of respondents saying they trust them the most. This is ironic, since newspaper readership is down, as more consumers turn to online media for news, and fallout from The New York Times' Jayson Blair debacle and similar scandals continue to plague print journalism. Yet trust in online news came in at 39 percent, below radio, which snared 44 percent, while magazines received 33 percent and television 32 percent. Notably, women are more trusting of tv than men and are more trusting, in general, than men, according to Smith. "Females [in general] tend to be more trusting than males across any issue, including trust in the media," he says, adding, "I'm not sure why that is, but it's pervasive."

Also revealing, 48 percent of respondents indicate that they find no one online communication vehicle particularly trustworthy. Among those who do, 34 percent go for news sites, 14 percent for corporate sites, 7 percent for blogs, 7 percent for personal sites, 5 percent for e-commerce sites, and 2 percent for unsolicited e-mail, with pop-up and banner ads barely on the radar at 1 percent apiece. Still, blogs can engender and build trust quickly if consumers are passionate about the topics they're reading about they and relate to the author's perspective, Smith notes. In many cases "blogs are being published by people without an agenda," he says.

With regard to trust in the news media, 44 percent of those polled say they distrust it, 23 percent are neutral, and 33 percent indicate they trust it. "Only one out of three trust the news media in general. ...Consumers sense that media companies are large corporations," Smith says.

While the familiar complaints of a liberal bias in the press remain a factor, survey comments indicate that the news media's agenda in general, no matter the politics, is worrisome to consumers. Comments included, "The media often has their own agendas and perspectives and does not give completely honest, unbiased information," and "There is a bias in the media and much of the news is slanted to suit someone's agenda."

In general, those polled were extremely aware of media-based scandals, with the Dan Rather story involving falsified documents on President Bush's National Guard service garnering the most recognition: 66.5 percent of respondents say they'd heard the story. In order, 65.9 percent were aware of Rush Limbaugh's drug dependence, 55.4 percent familiar with the sexual harassment charges against Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, 39.6 percent aware of the Jayson Blair plagiarism episode, and 21.6 percent say they'd heard the allegations that Jack Kelley falsified reports he wrote for usa Today. Despite all this negative awareness, 57.2 percent say their trust in the news media remains unchanged, while 20.8 percent say they trust it "somewhat less," and 14.3 percent say they trust it "significantly less."

InsightExpress recruited 300 people aged 13 and up to participate in the survey, with 49 percent of participants male and 51 percent female, for a representative portrait of the u.s. population.

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