Using research to support your advertising claims

Using research to support your advertising claims

A common theme in complaints against advertising is the use of research to back up claims. Time again, companies make claims about products that rely on poor quality data, a misunderstanding of findings or out-of-date research. The result can be an advert being banned, damage to your brand’s reputation or even criminal prosecution.

Advertising goes beyond claims made in traditional adverts. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority views entire websites as coming under their jurisdiction and have taken action against blogs and features. Complaints are on the rise as consumers and competitors alike challenge what they see and hear. This makes it more important you support your claims with research you can defend.

We take a robust approach when using research to support claims in adverts. On occasion we’ve had to support clients responding to regulators, and the thorough approach we take means they can robustly defend and rebuff any complaints made against them.

What’s really a source?

You need to find the right source to support your claims. A newspaper article that references research isn’t as strong as the research itself. Journalists are human and prone to bias, making mistakes and overstating findings.

Finding the primary research can prove difficult, particularly if an article doesn’t link to it or reference it properly. In our experience, if you can’t find it then it’s best to discount the research. Unfortunately, we’ve encountered a few occasions when bloggers have “made it up” to prove their point, used discredited research or material withdrawn for some other reason. This is not an ethical approach and one we could never support.

Once you’ve found your source take a copy of it and keep it and any notes you make. If you are challenged this makes it easier to defend yourself as you’ll be able to present the paper to the regulator and the contemporary justification for using it. Being able to respond this way often gives regulators reassurance you’ve got your advertising under control.

Is the source credible?

Not all research is created equal. A study by a boutique consultancy amongst their small customer base has less credibility than independent research from a recognised body that states its methods. Knowing how the research was put together can build credibility in the research, even if the findings can be countered by another paper. 

Timing is also important. A study from the past 6 or 7 months will have more credibility than one from 5 or 6 years back. The older research is, the more likely it is to have been contradicted or overturned. It doesn’t matter how many websites link to it, it could still be wrong.

There is also a question as to whether the research has been widely accepted or acted on. If it changed government policy can be a strong signal it’s credible. If it vanished into the ether, it’s unlikely to be credible.

Does it support your argument?

Relying on headlines isn’t enough – you need to read the research. Does it really support your argument, or are there enough caveats and contradictions to undermine it?

The need to get press attention often means researchers focus on one or two “big impact” numbers they think will give them coverage. Buried in the detail can be facts that can strengthen an argument, give it more context or support further claims. 

How do I reference it?

Claims in your advertising should include a reference to the source. This gives you a “halo effect” where your credibility grows with the authority of the research.

Web content will usually link to the source inside text and leave it at that. This doesn’t help establish the credibility of the claim, and we usually recommend including the full title and source as a tooltip for the link or in a “references” section on the bottom of the page.

Other advertising content will usually have the source in small print somewhere. The title of the research paper, the authors or publisher and a month/year date is usually all you need. You should also consider how the authors want the research to be referenced. From an SEO perspective this can help build authority for both of you.

What if the research disproves your claims?

Sometimes the research doesn’t say what we want it to. If this happens, it can’t be used. There’s little point in trying to claim something that can’t be supported or has been disproved. If this happens the entire advertising piece may have to be rewritten or in extreme cases, scrapped completely.

If you do decide to carry on regardless, be aware you’re risking your brand’s credibility and regulator action.

The bottom line

Claims in your advertising have to be supported. Finding credible research, checking it supports your claims, referencing it correctly and then keeping good notes will build your credibility with customers and make it easier to defend yourself should a complaint be made.

For our clients we ensure everything is checked it supports the message and is fully documented and ready to go to a regulator. This isn’t a “value-add” or something to be done after the event, it’s an integral part of creating a compelling piece of content.


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