by Megan Power (@Power_Report) 

I didn’t cheer the demise of the embattled Advertising Standards Authority this month. For all its faults — and it seems there were many — the independent industry regulator offered a voice, certainly to weary consumers fed up with blatant untruths or misleading claims.

So, unlike some marketers, who have over the years accused the authority of bully-boy tactics, I don’t celebrate its liquidation. Flawed as it may have been, it provided a welcome platform for aggrieved, and oft ignored, consumers to state their case.

New, reinvigorated

A new, reinvigorated authority — run, funded and managed by an apparently enthusiastic and committed industry — will, we’re told, soon replace the ASA and get down to the business of regulating commercial speech. That’s to be welcomed, and fast-tracked. An oversight vacuum serves nobody’s interests. In the interim, it will largely be up to consumers to keep the industry in check. And I have no doubt they’ll do just that, using social media to amplify their disdain to hundreds, if not tens of thousands.

But they won’t be alone in their battle. The Consumer Protection Act, that remarkable blueprint for how businesses should behave, will have their back. The act places great store on honest and responsible marketing; a main focus is how goods and services should be advertised and marketed. It bans false, misleading and deceptive representations; unfair, unreasonable or unjust price or marketing; negative option marketing; pretending someone has won a competition; and overselling.

It also talks of unconscionable conduct — a warning to all that you can’t use undue influence or unfair tactics in marketing goods. Taking advantage of disability, ignorance, illiteracy or inability to understand the language is also prohibited. Then there’s the really tricky one for marketers: they can’t use exaggeration, innuendo or ambiguity in relation to a material fact. So, if it can’t be substantiated or is likely to mislead, marketers could be on thin ice.

Consumers aren’t fools

Legislation and regulators aside, consumers aren’t fools; most know when they’re being had and when brands promises aren’t lived up to. All indications, too, are that younger consumers are becoming increasingly more cynical. Where they don’t complain publicly, they’ll punish brands for it by voting with their wallets. And rightly so. Consumers across the board today have wide choice; they don’t need to stay loyal to brands and organisations that betray their trust.

In a new study, Experience Gap, from Clear, a global marketing strategy consultancy, more than half the almost 10 000 US consumers surveyed said they didn’t accept a brand promise at face value, and 32% said the gap between what a brand promised and what it did was widening. Respondents were surveyed on their experiences with 225 brands across eight categories including alcohol, automotive, media and retail.

Said Rhonda Hiatt, Clear chief strategy officer, “You don’t have to win at every moment but you have to win on what you promise. Consumers are being very tough, expectations are high.”

Ignore at peril

Local consumers aren’t any less demanding. With rampant corruption and deceit at every turn, too, battle-scarred South Africans are becoming increasingly disillusioned — and less inclined to forgive. It’s a reality marketers ignore at their peril.

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