Revealed: What South Africans think about the ad industry


Revealed: What South Africans think about the ad industry. By Neil Higgs, Director: Innovation and Development at TNS Research Surveys.

A recent column showed that, in the US, two-thirds of people feel that ad agencies have some responsibility for the current worldwide economic crisis by causing people to buy things they could not afford. The American Association of Advertising Agencies feels that ad agencies should do a better job or advertising themselves and that perceptions of the industry tend to be negative for so many people.

How about here in South Africa? Two surveys conducted amongst 2 000 metro adults and by 880 people online by TNS Research Surveys in early September 2008 and released late last year at The Annual Ad Conference hosted by advertising and marketing commentator Jeremy Maggs looked at some of these issues.

Whilst people are slightly negative about advertising in general, the industry itself receives a mixed reception:

• 34% of the online sample say that the ad industry is not to be trusted and 35% in September last year felt that advertising puts too much pressure on people to buy.
• 55% feel that the industry is glamorous but only a third know the names of quite few ad agencies.

In overall terms, 47% of the metro sample IS positive towards advertising (19% extremely so), 17% are quite negative (6% extremely so – they will certainly speak up if they find an ad offensive) with 36% in the ambivalent to mildly negative box – these are people with some positive associations with advertising but also with some serious reservations.  The most positive people are black, younger, in Gauteng (especially Soweto), LSM 5 to 7, with a tendency towards Tswana and Sotho speakers.  Conversely, the more negative groups skew towards whites (especially males) and Indians/Asians, older people, LSMs 9 and 10, those who have at least some university education and English speakers.

Whilst advertising is felt to brighten lives, provide entertainment and provide useful information, notable proportions of people feel there is too much sex in advertising, that advertising often damages values and beliefs and that advertising that simply makes unsubstantiated performance and quality claims cannot be trusted.  It is no longer good enough simply to claim to be “the best”, “the quickest”, with “the best service”.  People in today’s highly connected world look elsewhere for confirmation.

One in six people say they “hate” ads and there is quite a strong feeling – six out of ten – that ads aimed at vulnerable people need regulation with 88% of the online sample saying that ads aimed at children specifically should be regulated.  The most common complaints revolve around there being too many boring ads around (55%) as well as ads being too repetitive.  Ads that are untrue, long, senseless and intrusive are some of the other main complaints.

Almost everyone (80%) feels that it is important for brands to advertise themselves, so it seems that the advertising industry taken as a whole still has a good future, but it may be that its face will change: 61% trust the opinions of family and friends more than they trust advertising and a quarter of the sample prefer the internet over conventional advertising for information about products and services.

So where does this leave us?

Today, people are more advertising and marketing savvy – no longer do people see advertising as authoritative as they did in 1976 when television finally arrived here.  They are no longer passive absorbers of advertising.  People engage more directly with brands in today’ interconnected world and are more likely than ever before to call brands to account, particularly where corporate governance and social responsibility are involved.

Fragmentation of the media plus increasing brand choice plus an increase in the search for identity and self with rising globalisation are leading to what is being termed the tribalisation of society and the increasing impact of networks. Never before have marketers and advertisers had less control over their brand reputations, a trend not likely to diminish.

It will be those marketers and ad agencies that understand this trend that will survive – but it will be those ad agencies that understand that this trend also applies to themselves that will truly shine.  Two things need to happen:

• The industry could do more to promote itself.
• But first, it needs to understand people’s attitudes to advertising generally.  Our studies show that advertising needs to be clever, well-made, not anodyne, not boring and talk-worthy where appropriate.  Stark claims no longer hack it.  If an ad is to be edgy and controversial, do so with intent (knowing the likely consequences) and adroitly.  The image of the industry is coloured by the ads it produces.

Expect greater involvement from people than ever before.

— Neil Higgs is Director: Innovation and Development at TNS Research Surveys. For more details on the surveys as well as a full technical report, please contact Neil on 011-778-7500 or 082-376-6312 or visit TNS Research Surveys at


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