Trust and behavioural science

Consumers have always viewed advertising with a degree of suspicion: they know that marketers place a positive spin on the truth to get a sale.

Richard Shotton
Behavioural Scientist, Astroten

It will come as no great surprise to hear that trust in advertising is low.

The latest data from IPSOS shows that in terms of trustworthiness, advertisers are ranked 24th of the 25 professions studied. Lower even than estate agents – and second only to politicians.

While we might hope that consumers will accept what we say – that has never been the case. Consumers have always viewed advertising with a degree of suspicion: they know that marketers place a positive spin on the truth to get a sale.

What can you do to gain trust?

Thankfully, there are some reliable ways that behavioural science can help. Here are three ideas to try in your campaigns.

The pratfall effect
This idea from the Harvard psychologist, Eliot Aronson, suggests brands can gain trust if they admit a flaw.

In Aronson’s classic experiment, he recorded an actor taking part in a rigged quiz. The actor—armed with the answers—wins the quiz by miles and looks like a genius. However, as the quiz finishes, the contestant spills a cup of coffee over himself (a small blunder, or what an American might call a pratfall).

Aronson played a recording of the quiz to a large sample, who were asked how likeable the contestant was. The participants were split into two groups: one group heard the full recording, spillage and all, the other listened to an edited version, without the coffee accident. Participants rated the clumsy contestant as more likeable.

Some of the greatest ad campaigns in history have applied the pratfall effect. Consider Volkswagen’s ‘Ugly is only skin-deep’, Marmite ‘Love it or hate it’, Avis’s ‘When you’re No. 2 you try harder’ or Stella’s ‘Reassuringly Expensive’.

Stella's 'Reassuringly Expensive'Avis We Try Harder

What these best-in-class brands have realised is that by admitting a weakness, you prove your honesty, so all other claims become more believable.

It’s a tactic that more of today’s brands would do well to consider.
If you decide to give it ago, note that the best brands don’t admit a weakness randomly. It’s important to avoid admitting a flaw in the key features of your brand: VW didn’t mock the car’s reliability, nor Stella its flavour.

Public claims
Another way to boost trust is through public statements.

Thought experiments that I’ve conducted suggest that the same claim makes a different impact depending on whether it’s made publicly or privately.

I asked participants to think about their local MP making a spending pledge. Sometimes I told them it was made face-to-face, sometimes at a public meeting. In the private setting, roughly 40% mistrusted the promise. In the public setting, this was just 20%.

We understand that there will be more embarrassment if a publicly stated promise is broken, compared to a private one. It’s not that we think the MP becomes more ethical in public; it’s just that the risk of reputational damage compels them to be a little more truthful.

This research suggests that brand promises made in public, broadcast media will have greater believability than those made in private, narrowcast media. Consider this when planning your media mix.

Likeability
A central theme in behavioural science is that people have to make so many decisions that they subconsciously replace complex calculations with simpler ones. These cognitive short-cuts allow speed but can compromise accuracy.

This is relevant to the issue of trust. Deciding whether we trust someone is a tricky mental calculation: often we won’t have enough evidence to draw on. And so, we substitute trust with something simpler – such as how much we like the brand or person in question.

Studies by Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, show that this can affect trust in even the most serious of areas, such as in court. He found that good-looking defendants are less likely to be convicted than those who are less easy on the eye.

So, if you want to boost trust, an oblique route might be best. Focus on being liked, and trustworthiness should follow.

These are just three of the tactics that advertisers can employ to boost trust. If more advertisers apply these tactics, who knows, maybe one day we might be more trusted than estate agents!

“What these best-in-class brands have realised is that by admitting a weakness, you prove your honesty, so all other claims become more believable.”

Richard Shotton is author of The Choice Factory and interested in how social psychology and behavioural science can be applied to advertising to make it more effective.