The Ad Council, a long-time industry leader in using the power of communications for social good, released a benchmark new study unveiling America’s most trusted messengers, where they have the most impact in driving change for social and societal issues and how they fit into the larger trusted messenger ecosystem. Most notably, the study found that doctors, close friends and scientists carry the most trust after family—with honesty, consistency and a lack of bias as key contributing traits. The report, “Who Do We Trust With Our Lives?: The Trusted Messenger Study,” is the first from the nonprofit’s Ad Council Research Institute (ACRI), a newly formed business arm that leverages the organization’s insight-driven approach, examining how to inspire action on the most pressing social issues of our time.
According to the study, Americans place the most trust in their families when seeking information around social issues ranging from mental health, voting and civic engagement, racial equity and justice, climate change, addiction and COVID-19. Most trust their spouse or partner (72%), closely followed by immediate family members (66%). Doctors or medical professionals (60%), close friends (59%) and scientists (51%) are the next most trustworthy messengers for the American public, followed by local or community leaders including pastors/religious leaders (40%), teachers or school leaders (39%), church members (32%), local business owners (31%).
While these messengers rose to the top on social and societal issues, the report details the importance of understanding the interplay of reach and trust within the trusted messenger ecosystem which represents three key layers to reach, validate and instill trust in a message. To design and execute an effective campaign, the findings underline the need to recognize the unique potential of “Amplifiers” with broad reach and relevance, “Validators” with specific issue expertise and “Persuaders” with personal connection to audiences. Social issue marketers should consider how these three key layers of the trusted messengers ecosystem work in concert to develop social impact campaigns that create awareness, build knowledge and ultimately incite behavior changes.
“We know from experience that when it comes to inspiring action around social issues, the messenger is just as important as the message itself,” said Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council. “This study challenges all purpose-driven marketers to broaden the definition of trusted messengers for unique audiences, ensuring messages reach, inform and inspire action. In addition to the scale and relevance of celebrities, influencers and others with vast networks, these findings reinforce the need to complement their incredible platforms with the most relatable and trusted voices, helping us all to make a difference in our communities.”
In addition to trends among the general population, the study identified differences in trust across certain demographics, including by political affiliation. Two thirds (68%) of Democrats trust scientists, compared to just 38% of Republicans and 44% of independents. Democrats also put notably more trust in professors/academic experts (53%) and teachers/school leaders (49%) than Republicans (29% and 32%, respectively) and Independents (32% and 29%, respectively). Conversely, more Republicans (54%) trust pastors and religious leaders than Democrats (36%) and Independents (31%). Republicans also place a great deal more trust in fellow church members (45%) than Democrats (28%) and Independents (24%).
The study also finds that rural respondents are somewhat less trusting of academic or expert messengers, compared to those in urban and suburban locations. While 54% of urban and 53% of suburban respondents consider scientists extremely/very trustworthy, just 45% of people in rural areas do. Similarly, a third of people in rural areas (32%) place trust in professors/academic experts, compared to 44% in urban and 40% in suburban areas. 33% of rural respondents trust teachers and school leaders, compared to 43% of urban and 39% of suburban respondents.
When determining trustworthiness for opinions and advice around social issues, honesty (79%) and consistency (73%) stand out as the top contributing traits. Americans also identified that having an unbiased opinion (71%), presenting both sides of an issue (71%), being trusted for other information or advice (70%) and lacking a of conflict of interest (69%) are all important characteristics of trustworthy messengers. In contrast, being endorsed or paid by companies (19%), being a government official or having a large community of followers (23%) and being a popular national or local voice (27% and 29%, respectively) were identified as traits that do not, alone, lend themselves to trustworthiness for social issues.
Data for the study was gathered from 37 qualitative interviews and an online survey completed by 2,523 U.S. respondents across diverse genders, generations, race, ethnicity, urbanicity, income and political affiliation. The study focused specifically on the individual messengers of information, rather than sources themselves or the validity of information shared. This focus differs from existing studies and allows for a closer look at who and why different people are believed to be trustworthy.
In addition to key findings, the report identifies recommendations for social impact marketers hoping to leverage the right voices for their campaigns and initiatives. The full study and findings, including the breakdown of trusted messengers across different social issues, are published here.
“Who Do We Trust With Our Lives?: The Trusted Messenger Study” is the debut study from the Ad Council Research Institute which launched today. For 80 years, research has been a key element of the Ad Council’s work, driving the creation of social good campaigns across the country to raise awareness and ultimately inspire action. Building from the nonprofit’s extensive experience, ACRI works directly with brand, corporate and nonprofit partners to conduct and publish public studies on a variety of important social issues.
“The Ad Council Research Institute was started so we could arm brands, nonprofits and others devoted to social causes with the insights needed to move the needle on some of our country’s most pressing issues,” said Derrick Feldmann, lead researcher and managing director of ACRI and Ad Council Edge. “We’re looking forward to the meaningful learnings that will come from these collaborative public studies and how they will contribute to even more impactful social good initiatives in the future.”
ACRI provides a variety of services, ranging from public sentiment, knowledge and behavior studies; message and narrative testing; influencer and trusted messenger insights; and campaign performance measurement and optimization. Topics for future ACRI research include workforce wellbeing; food insecurity; health access and equity; unity, misinformation and polarization; and racial inequity. All research is guided by the Institute’s core principles of empathy, pragmatism and collaboration, delivering results that are both authentic and actionable.
For more information, visit the ACRI website.