Harder Times Shift Advertiser Focus From Harmful Content To Performance

As the macro economy became increasingly uncertain, top advertiser and agency executives began signaling a shift toward the bottom line and away from higher-order values -- especially an industry push to defund disinformation and support quality journalism and news integrity. That's one of the findings from a periodic tracking study fielded by Advertiser Perceptions measuring a variety of issues under the overall banner of "Trust In Advertising."

The researcher's analysts aren't sure whether this is a long-term shift in advertising priorities or a short-term hiccup related to spikes in inflation, interest rates, and increasing concerns about overall stability in economic growth. But data going back to the first quarter of 2021 shows a marked shift in ad-executive priorities from addressing "harmful content" to a focus on "performance," the latter which dominates the concerns of U.S. marketers and ad agency executives.



"My feeling is it's a blip and we'll see that stabilize in the next wave," predicts Sarah Bolton, executive vice president of business at Advertiser Perceptions.

She says the company has been tracking the overall trust in advertising issues for a half dozen years and explicitly added questions about defunding publishers and programmatic marketplaces supporting misinformation and disinformation for two-and-a-half years, and that the overall trend has been a strong commitment to allocating advertising budgets in support of quality journalism and news integrity.

"Generally, the concern and focus on misinformation and disinformation has been steadily growing, but in the last six months the trend turned around a little bit, because I think it’s the macro economic environment and the focus of advertisers has shifted to performance," she explains, adding: "That goes hand in hand -- they just kind of took their foot off the gas when it comes to these softer ethical investment things. It took a little bit of a back seat."

That finding is similar to historic consumer research studies that find people generally express more support for higher-order values like social causes and the environment during economically stable periods, but tend to lose their enthusiasm during harder times.

Interestingly, the Advertiser Perceptions research does not show a corresponding erosion for many of the ad industry's top causes and values, including DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion), mental health, and anti-racism/social justice issues, but it does show some slippage in tis commitment of ad execs to the climate crisis, in addition to news responsible journalism and news integrity (see below).

That said, the Advertiser Perceptions research does indicate macroeconomics may be playing a role in the overall prioritization of corporate responsibility.

Asked whether "corporate responsibility and brand values will play a prominent role in marketing decisions in 2023," 65% of ad executives said they agreed with that statement when asked in Advertiser Perceptions' last wave in October 2022. That was down nine percentage points from 74% who said they agreed with the statement in May 2022.

Bolton says that even with that slippage, ad execs remain committed to defunding disinformation and supporting quality journalism as part of an overall industry trend, and a recent announcement by GroupM supporting its ongoing "Back To News" initiative with a new initiative that will place ads in quality journalism publishers worldwide seems to reinforce that. 

Bolton adds that the overall commitment doesn't just pertain to explicit news publishing sites and organizations, but to the role that big social and search platforms play in steering people toward quality and questionable news and public information, and especially how programmatic advertising buys can "opaquely' end up placing their ad budgets in the wrong places.

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