“As Seen on TV” and Building Trust

Between the Shake Weight, the rise of the Fashion Print Snuggie, and the deceased but, eerily still active Billy Mays, it occurs to me that we may be witnessing somewhat of an “As Seen on TV” renaissance.

And while “As Seen on TV” products have always been the red-headed step child of legitimate consumer brands, this new golden era of cheesy, direct-response marketing makes me wonder if the simple act of seeing a brand on TV still carries the same legitimizing weight it once did.

More to the point: is seeing a brand on TV still an effective way to build trust and drive purchase intent in 2010?

The answer, I think, is that while advertising on TV certainly can be effective at driving some key metrics, the notion of brand trust and “As Seen on TV” ain’t what it used to be. There are (at least) three reasons why:

1. Consumer Trust in Mass Communication Channels Is Eroding

Consider the findings of Nielsen’s now well quoted 2009 “Trust and Advertising” report, which examined the degree to which consumers trust various forms of media. The study found that while only 62% of people trust television ads as a source of brand information, a full 90% trust the recommendations of their friends and acquaintances.

In short, as a viable alternative to broadcast messaging has emerged (social media, interactive communication), people are simply less prone to just take at face value what they see on TV.  Before any purchase, consumers can easily go online and quickly search for a product, pulling down a wealth of information to either verify or deny what a TV spot may have led them to believe. This behavior certainly isn’t going away, and our approach to communications must adapt accordingly.

Nutrition and culture expert Michael Pollan takes this view of trust on TV a step futher still asserting that when a brand decides to advertise on TV, that’s exactly the moment you should stop trusting them. This line of thinking lead him to make the now infamous declaration, “Don’t eat anything advertised on TV.”

2. Brands That ‘Go Big’ on TV Tend to Under-Invest Elsewhere

Ok, so let’s take a step back and assume (counter to Mr. Pollan) that advertising on TV is not, in and of itself, an evil or untrustworthy thing to do.

Even so, in today’s landscape, it simply isn’t enough to just advertise on TV and hope the cash register rings. Seeing a brand on TV can absolutely work if it exists as part of an integrated brand ecosystem that leverages digital and other touchpoints to create an organic, authentic connection with consumers, but today, many brands that spend big on TV are simply checking boxes in the digital space.

Once the TV ad spend is on the books, the rest of many brands’ efforts really just sum up to window dressing to make itself look and feel integrated – when it’s really just the same old stuff. I once heard this referred to as the “Page 29” effect – where an agency or client literally throws in a “non-traditional” or digital idea on the last page of a branding deck because they know they should, rather than because they  truly believe it will work. Obviously, this simply won’t work today, and it won’t work tomorrow. The more we transition away from a TV-centric, campaign-based approach to branding towards building sustainable brand platforms, the better off we’ll all be as marketers and consumers.

3. Trust Eventually Translates to Sales

Perhaps the biggest reason why brands continue to double-down their investment in TV is the perception that, more so than any other medium, TV will have a measurable impact on sales. After all, who cares if consumers say they don’t trust TV ads if they keep buying the damn soap?

Last year, Comscore conducted an intriguing study that found online display ad campaigns boosted sales of CPG products by an average of 9 percent. This compares to an average lift of 8 percent for TV advertising. And while this study is among the first of its kind, what we’re starting to see is a tipping point where the old wisdom about the effectiveness of TV advertising will be called into question more and more.

In TV We Trust?

And while “As Seen on TV” products themselves are hardly the point, I can’t help but wonder if the next Snuggie—  two years or five years from now— will still rely on the TV “badge-of-honor” as it would today. And what about established brands like Nike?

Historically, being seen on TV breeds perceived familiarity, which in turn contributes to a sense of lasting trust. I believe what we’re actually seeing today is an unprecedented breakdown of the long-established link between brand awareness and trust—particularly as “trust hunches” initiated by mass media become increasingly easy to verify or disprove.

So, as digital continues to prove itself out as an effective alternative to more traditional media in terms of both building brand trust and driving sales, perhaps it’s time to consider whether “As Seen on TV” is a badge that’s necessary at all.

Image Credit: enderike