It probably won’t come as a surprise that consumers don’t trust advertising. But the numbers are pretty grim.

According to a report entitled Your Brand: At Risk or Ready for
Growth?
sponsored by marketing solutions provider Alterian, the number
of consumers who don’t trust advertising is disturbingly close to 100%.

The report, which was written by Michael Hulme of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Lancaster University, found that 95% of respondents indicated that they did not trust advertising. Less than a tenth (8%) trust what companies say about themselves and more than half (58%) agreed with the statement “companies are only interested in selling products and services to me, not necessarily the product or service that is right for me”. Perhaps most importantly, and only 17% of respondents believe companies take what they say seriously.

What’s the possible solution? According to the report, respondents who are “actively engaged in the use of social media…[tend] to be more positive about companies in general.” While only 16% of respondents overall thought companies were “genuinely interested in them“, a much greater percentage (33%) of those who use social media thought that.

Alterian concludes “Social media is the most obvious manifestation of the broader social/behavioural change rather than being the change itself.” That, I think, is an interesting insight. After all, social media is a platform that enables companies to interact and engage, but platforms alone can’t force change.

All of this said, I think it’s easy to overstate social media’s virtues, and to be too cynical about companies and advertising in general. While it’s easy to conclude that traditional marketing is “dead” and that companies should be delivering their marketing messages on an individual level, the reality is that the mode and mediums aren’t the problem; it’s the credibility of the messaging itself.

When it comes to the impact social media is having on relationships between companies and consumers, I, for one, am not entirely convinced that social media is being used to deliver more authentic messages, or producing more meaningful interactions. In short, the fact that social media users were (in this survey) more likely to believe that companies are interested in them has debatable meaning. After all, the number believing this is still well below 50%, and cause is not correlation. One could just as easily suggest that consumers who interact with companies online via social media are more likely to have favorable perceptions about companies generally.

What does seem clear, however: companies need to do more, and they need to change. While it may be no surprise that in a day and age filled with cynicism, consumers don’t think very much of advertising or what companies say about themselves, the fact that few consumers actually buy into it should disturb corporate leaders.

Unfortunately, Hulme notes that “even within the limited social media debate, there appears to be a lack of readiness.” Even though the issues in play here are far bigger than social media, social media alone is the subject of skepticism amongst many in senior management, and it’s often approached as a siloed area instead of something that’s “cross-organisational in scope.

That, of course, is a real problem. But the even bigger problem is making sure that the same mistakes made with traditional advertising don’t get made with social media. If companies try the same old tricks with social media, they shouldn’t be surprised when it’s revealed that 95% of consumers don’t trust their social media messaging either.