Broadly speaking, the more an advertisement looks like editorial the better it sells.

It’s a phenomenon that was understood by old-school advertising copywriters, who weren’t afraid to publish long-copy ads that looked like in-depth newspaper features.

And it’s a technique that’s still used by direct response advertisers today. The adverts for the Brennan hard-drive CD recorder look more like editorial features than anything else in Private Eye.

The theory of why adverts that look like editorial work so well is simple – readers trust journalism more than they trust paid-for product placement.

But do readers really trust journalism more than ad copy?

I’m increasingly sceptical. And I think you might be too.

It’s not 1982 any more

I was digging around in the Observer archive the other day when I stumbled across an article by Liz Jobey, published in January 1982.

Entitled ‘Promotion and the art of puffery’, it’s a piece about the relationship between journalists and public relations people – and the lengths to which PRs will go when they want an editorial mention for a client’s product.

(PRs believe that there’s one thing better than adverts that look like editorial – adverts that are editorial).

What interested me most, though, was Jobey’s remark about trust.

Unlike advertising space, editorial space doesn’t cost anything and, since it is written by a journalist whom the public ostensibly trust, and not by a copywriter paid for the job, the public believes what the journalist recommends to be good, and may even go out and buy it.

In an age when people first learned about new products from the mass media, you heard about a product either because a company had paid for an advert or a journalist had decided to write about it.

And while a company would never advertise a rival product, a journalist could at least choose which products to mention.

Even if a company’s PR plied a journalist with gifts and expense-account lunches, the journalist still – in theory, at least – exercised choice about which products to write about.

And that’s why we trusted them more than the admen.

Losing trust in journalism

Things have moved on since then.

Even before the phone hacking scandal broke, our trust in journalists had plummeted.

A YouGov survey published in 2008 showed how much less we trusted journalists than we did five years before.

The figures show the percentage of people saying they trusted a profession either a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’.

  • BBC news journalists: 61 per cent (down 20 per cent)
  • ITV news journalists: 51 per cent (down 31 per cent)
  • Channel 4 news journalists: 51 per cent (down 29 per cent)
  • Journalists on upmarket papers: 43 per cent (down 22 per cent)
  • Journalists on local papers: 40 per cent (down 20 per cent)
  • Journalists on midmarket papers: 18 per cent (down 18 per cent)
  • Journalists on redtop papers: 15 per cent (up one per cent)

(Trust in red-top journalists had dropped back to 10% by the end of last year.)

If you followed the links to those surveys, you’ll have seen that our trust in many professions has dipped – but the decline has been sharpest in the case of journalists.

Why?

Why have we lost trust in journalism?

The commonly spouted theory is that we’ve lost trust in journalism because of the dreadful things some journalists have been caught doing – hacking phones, taking backhanders, exploiting the bereaved.

It’s true up to a point, but I think it’s deeper rooted than that: we just don’t need journalists as much as we once did. Think about it.

  • We read newspaper book reviews – but they influence us less than reading groups or like-minded friends on social networks
  • We read about new restaurants – but we can use the web to find detailed write-ups of the restaurants in areas that really interest us
  • We read what politicians have been up to – but we get instant, breaking news from Twitter many minutes before the BBC or the newspaper websites catch up
  • We tut at inaccuracies, deceit and nepotism – whether it’s a journalist exposing a politician, or a whistleblower exposing a journalist.

What’s fascinating, though, is the way we trust some journalists more than others.

If the figures above are broadly correct, we trust BBC hacks more than ITV ones, and Channel 4 journalists more than broadsheet writers.

Which suggests to me that we’re more likely to put our trust in a brand than we are a profession – and that if journalists really want to restore their reputation, they need to stop worrying about the profession as a whole and concentrate on building trust in their publication or channel.

Because the real answer to whether the public most trusts the work of journalists or copywriters lies in reputation of the brands they’ve helped to create.

Whether they set out to create those brands or not.