Is a Trustmark really the key to listener confidence?

Radiocentre says the purpose of its Trustmark, announced last week, is to give listeners the reassurance that they can trust advertising messages they hear on radio.

Opinion piece by Drew White, voiceover & producer, for RadioToday

I don’t see any harm in drawing attention to the fact each message is pre-vetted and putting the ‘tick’ logo on a station homepage, with a link to an explanation of that fact, would seem entirely positive.

Of course we know that good execution of an idea is vital for its success – it’s as true for this concept as it is for the adverts themselves. Personally I wouldn’t want breaks cluttered and extended with a gimmicky voicer to remind us constantly about the initiative. After all, isn’t the listener perception already that you can trust what you hear on your favourite radio channel?

I have heard of stations receiving listener complaints when an advertiser doesn’t perform a satisfactory professional service – as if, instead of merely providing an advertising space, the station were vouching for their quality in every detail, right down to a UPVC window installer’s choice of putty. (Yes, really!). Maybe the use of a “tick” logo will accidentally reinforce that notion for those anticipating a ‘Checkatrade’ or ‘Which?’ form of pre-vetting.

All that said, I doubt people turn off ad breaks because they are unsure whether a script was validated. For me, the real question of ‘trust’ that might make someone switch off is right there in plenty of cleared scripts. It’s that huge clump of text somewhere between the beautiful, calm soft sell and the split-second sonic logo. Yes, those dreaded Ts & Cs!

We surely can’t be blamed for mentally or physically tuning out when a voice launches into yet another high-speed barrage of gabbled terms, conditions and exclusions that are intentionally being read as quickly as possible. Not only is it deeply unpleasant on the ear – in fact it’s a bit of a blight when you consider how often it now happens in a break – but as Radiocentre’s Clare Bowen told James Cridland at Next Radio 2015, some of it can be unnecessary. The issue can stem from nervous lawyers in companies, rather than the law itself.

Here is where I see the trust issue. Just like our perception of a mass of smallprint, having a VO speed-read under their breath, too fast for us to follow and for far too long, appears plain dodgy. We feel something is being slipped past us. Numbers, percentages, APR, age restrictions, credit checks, status, risk, “offer ends” – we heard all those keywords, but could we get the prices and contract details? No – because we didn’t have the luxury of reading the script at our own pace.

That message in the script was deemed compliant BEFORE the ad was produced, so the reader was able to scrutinise it repeatedly, to consider all facts & figures given, rather than trying to catch it aurally in the obfuscated form the rest of us must settle for. As one friend at a national station, let’s call him “Lee”, puts it: ‘imagine if the BBFC cleared film scripts rather than watching the film?’. It’s a great point and may explain why we end up with such horror nasties on air!

So if perception of trustworthiness is Radiocentre’s concern right now then we should consider whether listeners do really trust those vague or fanciful claims that then appear to require nearly a third of the ad to justify themselves, presented in a way we cannot easily digest.

By forcing so much to be said inline, instead of on the advertiser or station’s website, you could argue it is detrimental to:

  • the listener’s enjoyment of ad breaks
  • the advertiser’s ability to creatively maximise use of the airtime they are buying
  • the consumer’s ability to digest important financial & conditional information
  • a listener’s ability to trust both the advertiser and the specific promotion.

I hope Radiocentre will soon propose some change in this area, or at least instigate a prominent discussion with listeners and stations, then lawmakers where appropriate. They could first advise when certain detail in a cleared script wasn’t actually necessary, then find a way to facilitate the removal of those complex details, like deposit & repayment amounts, from the script and instead require that either advertiser or radio station place the required text on their website, with a simple direct URL. That way we could all benefit from the chance to read them as carefully as the clearance team did! That would build trust, wouldn’t it?

Incidentally, I say ‘simple direct’ URL because while shortcodes & catchy domains are all the rage on social media, radio ads often still contain too many slashes & clumsy page names, which do no favours for listeners or advertisers. This seems absurd when suffixes like “.info” are so cheap and quick to register. It only needs to redirect to a page within the advertiser or station site, but would be far more effective than unwieldy addresses (and all but the catchiest of telephone numbers).

Now I am sure I will hear of a dozen reasons why I am oversimplifying and why making any significant change in this area is deemed ‘impossible’ or unlikely. I often hear that “no salesperson will dare tell advertisers what to do” and yet the likes of Classic FM are obviously still managing to encourage advertisers to run with tailored music choices. Elsewhere I hear of campaign failure thwarted by those who realised an overwritten ad would simply not be effective and could lead to likely loss of repeat business.

I know how difficult it can be to raise this thorny issue while working inside group stations, so I’m lucky to speak from a position where it is not off-limits. While programming bosses have been forensically analysing presenter links, playlist and music rotation those ad breaks have grown, requiring that the exciting jock “throw forward” is of Olympic javelin quality. The amount of speed-speak has also bulged, to the extent that it can be as long as some of those same stopwatched links. Isn’t that crazy?

In the end I am looking to Radiocentre to do something radical. The Trustmark isn’t radical, but it is an encouraging sign that they have thinking caps in place and looking to improve the essential relationship between listeners and advertisers.

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