Any initiative that aims to raise the standard of online advertising has to be admired, whether or not it achieves that aim. This goes beyond political advertising, currently a major point of discussion. One wider problem, however, is advertising fraud, which accounts for about £17.4 billion globally and represents almost 11 per cent of digital ad-spend, according to GroupM.
But more generally, users are also getting fed up of being bombarded with loud, low-quality adverts, and brands and agencies committed to great creative work are just as bothered by the advertising litter strewn across the digital floor.
The natural response of any user to these circumstances is to lose trust in, and patience with, advertising on the whole. And that’s why solutions are welcome. The latest example of this might be the IAB’s Gold Standard, which was launched last year as a way to improve brand safety, fight ad fraud and improve the digital advertising experience for users.
Tesco and McDonald’s became its latest signatories in a move that commits them to meeting certain criteria and adhering to the principles set out by the Coalition for Better Ads. Nick Ashley of Tesco said that the IAB Gold Standard was a “clear start to building better standards across the industry.”
A clear start is right. But where we go from here is less certain. Tesco and McDonald’s, after all, are not the problem: you don’t hear people moan about how often they’re spammed with Big Mac ads on the internet. That doesn’t make their pledge meaningless or inauthentic by any means, but it doesn’t exactly change anything tangibly either. It’s a gesture, and an admirable one, but those making online life annoying are unlikely to follow suit.
One stubborn problem is that the internet is a long-tail advertising space. That means quantity trumps quality. In that respect, it’s the opposite of traditional media, and with the proliferation of channels increasingly comes the feeling that users are being inundated with content: some studies say the average user sees 10,000 brand messages a day.
So on any digital platform, it isn’t the household-name brand you have to worry about. It’s the gazillion others you’ve never heard of. And if you can’t police the digital world — which, so far, no one has been able to do — then you’re doomed to find your digital experience as irritating as you always have (at least, until someone creates the mother of all adblockers).
If the top 100 brands in the UK all signed up to the IAB’s Gold Standard, that would still only represent a tiny, tiny proportion of the digital advertising market. Something like half a per cent of a market comprising brands that tend to behave themselves online anyway, isn’t going to catalyse a seismic shift. There’s already been plenty of talk about the ‘empathy gap,’ blamed for cyber bullying and much more besides. So initiatives that rely on voluntary participation won’t be nearly as effective as proper regulation.
Until we can answer this admittedly complex question of online regulation, the best way to restore and build trust with consumers is to produce great work. Easier said than done, of course. But there are those, including me, who have attempted to address what some are calling the ‘creative crisis’ in advertising by suggesting ways in which the industry can get back to making exceptional ads. That wouldn’t staunch the flood of misleading or simply annoying online ads, but it would serve to draw a hard line between what advertising can and should be, and what it isn’t. And that might just get us somewhere.
Jon Goulding is CEO of Atomic.