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Is the Internet a dishonest, scam-ridden, unregulated Wild West?

Not necessarily. But advertisers peddling their wares online are facing a highly skeptical public. People are taking in more and more of what they read, hear and watch online, but while they love digital media, they do not always trust it. According to a survey of more than 1,000 Canadians released on Wednesday by Advertising Standards Canada – a self-regulatory group that oversees the ad industry – people still trust ads they see in traditional media such as television and print more than the ads they see online.

The survey, commissioned by ASC and conducted by research firm the Gandalf Group earlier this year, found that consumers are wary of digital ads. Among the reasons given for their lack of trust, the most common were that the ads are false or manipulative; that the Internet is unmonitored and uncontrolled and people can say anything there; and that ads often link to scams such as phishing and malware.

Another report this week suggests these sentiments are not limited to Canadians. Research firm Nielsen released a global study of trust in advertising on Tuesday, which polled 30,000 people in 60 countries in September. It found that 63 per cent "completely" or "somewhat" trust ads on TV; 60 per cent for newspapers; 58 per cent for magazines, and 56 per cent for billboards and other outdoor ads. The least trusted formats were text ads on mobile phones (36 per cent); other mobile ads (43 per cent); and online banner ads (42 per cent).

"While advertisers have started to follow consumers online, about a third of online advertising campaigns don't work – they don't generate awareness or drive any lift in purchase intent," Randall Beard, president of Nielsen Expanded Verticals, said in the study.

Canadian research backs that up: In another ASC study last year, roughly two-thirds of people said they had voted with their wallets and stopped buying from companies whose ads they found "unacceptable." There is a real cost for marketers in getting it wrong.

But not all online ads are created equal. People in the Canadian survey distrusted some more than others, particularly pop-ups. Promotional e-mails, search advertising and pre-roll video ads rated highest in perceived accuracy – but that's relative. Even with the most trustworthy types of digital ads, less than 40 per cent of people said they were very or somewhat comfortable with their truth and accuracy. Worse, the question asked people to provide this rating while thinking of their favourite brands and products – theoretically, the ads they should be most amenable to seeing.

Then again, trust is not the only factor. The immediacy of online advertising – how easy it is to visit an online store after seeing an ad, for example – still makes digital an attractive marketing vehicle. Nielsen's study found that in many cases, even people who do not trust an ad format completely will still sometimes take action on it, such as visiting a store, clicking on a link, or even eventually buying a product.

Trust by medium, globally, versus action on an ad

Ad typeTrust "somewhat" or "completely""Always" or "sometimes take action as a result of the ad
Recommendations from people I know83%83%
Branded websites7070
Consumer opinions posted online6669
Editorial content (e.g. newspaper articles)6663
Brand sponsorships6162
Outdoor (e.g. billboards)5658
Emails I signed up for5663
Product placements in TV shows5559
In the cinema5454
Online video4853
Search engine4758
Social media4656
Online banners4250
Texts on mobile phones3646