How much is honesty worth today in advertising? Everything - according to Donald Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer of J. Walter Thompson Company, a 118-year-old advertising agency and one of the world's biggest advertising empires.
Speaking recently as outgoing chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the Four-A's), he warned the assembled group of professional communicators of a dangerous deterioration in the public attitude toward advertising.
''It's hardly a secret that all advertising is based on trust,'' he reminded his audience. ''Advertising is essentially a promise of a benefit. If you don't believe the promise, you're not likely to buy the product.''
But it's not enough to simply tell the truth. Consumer-attitude research, he noted, is disclosing a strong correlation between advertising that offends and bores consumers and their distrust of advertising. ''People have to believe you're telling the truth, and they won't extend that belief to advertising that offends them,'' Mr. Johnston said.
He pointed out a tendency on the part of advertising professionals to dismiss consumer criticism as unwarranted. The public often objects on grounds of poor taste to ads for feminine hygiene products, laxatives, bras and girdles, and jeans. Many viewers dislike sexually suggestive material, especially when it involves teen-agers. They are annoyed by insults to their intelligence, such as ads about squeezing toilet paper.
Mr. Johnston drew attention to the mushrooming field of pay-cable TV where the basic selling premise is freedom from advertising. ''When substantial numbers of people are willing to pay not to see or hear commercials, it's time for all of us in the advertising industry to pay attention.''
''The general public has become the severest critic of advertising,'' said the advertising executive in an interview. ''And truth in advertising may not be enough to stem the public's criticism. In fact, we strongly believe that advertising that is liked gives an added value that advertisers should not ignore. Brands are based on trust. And honest, likable, informative advertising will help build that trust as well as brand loyalty.''
Should advertising be entertaining as well as informative? ''Absolutely!'' according to Joan Seidman, senior copywriter at Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, a large Madison Avenue ad agency noted for its creative, award-winning work for Pepsi-Cola and General Electric. ''Advertising should be exciting, and invite your attention - and always truthful. Honesty in advertising is a matter of pragmatics as well as morality. You can use advertising to get people to buy a product once, but if it doesn't live up to expectation or its advertising claims, who's going to buy it a second time? I can't think of a faster way to ruin a product than with advertising that's not truthful.''
Young & Rubicam copywriter Daniel Swanson adds: ''All selling is based on mutual trust. Advertising is simply selling in words and pictures. Without a sense of trust and truthfulness in advertising it would lack all meaning and impact.''
John S. Bowen, the Four-A's newly installed chairman and president and chief executive officer of Benton & Bowles, pledges to continue the quest for ways to improve the public's image of advertising. ''There's no question but the consumer has to trust and believe the message for your advertising to work,'' he said.
He noted a trend toward more emphasis on product quality by American manufacturers in today's competitive economy. And he expects to see an improvement in the quality of advertising. ''The advertising will be better because it will be selling products which have been produced with more attention paid to their quality and integrity.''
In this current economic climate, he wonders about the best way to help individual members of the Four A's raise their sights and insist on delivering better advertising ''products'' to their clients.
''We're constantly striving to create, write and produce better and more truthful advertising. It's not enough just to say we ought to do better. The question is, how can we best offer association members the consumer research, the guidelines, and examples that can help each of them raise collective advertising standards,'' said Bowen.