2021 Trusted Messengers Study

Americans no longer know who they should turn to for reliable information. In these highly political and often polarized times, who the message comes from is just as important—if not more—than what the specific content of the message is.

Intro Summary

When the COVID-19 vaccines were first becoming available, the Ad Council conducted months of interviews, surveys, and focus groups to understand why some Americans were hesitant to get the vaccine, and who could best reach them to persuade them otherwise. Ultimately, the COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative uncovered that the typical model of consumer brand allies and media partners couldn’t do it alone, especially when a decision is so personal. Trusted messengers—people deemed trustworthy, honest, and credible—were also crucial to deliver information directly to people at a local level.

The Trusted Messenger Study was designed to identify the trusted messengers Americans turn to for information on social and societal issues. It’s intended to better inform corporate leaders, causes, and civic groups working to educate and inspire the American public. Part of an ongoing, annual exploration, this inaugural study overwhelmingly found that, regardless of social issue, the majority of people trust close family and friends, followed by doctors and scientists, as well as academic and religious leaders. This finding held true across the six social and societal issues included in this report (COVID-19, mental health, voting/civic engagement, racial equity & justice, climate change, and addiction), and across demographics (generation, race, political affiliation, and urbanicity).

According to the research, personal experience or new information–when presented by a trusted messenger–was most likely to influence a respondent’s change in views and behavior around a social cause.

So where does the traditional influencer fit in—the celebrity, the content creator, the politician? By themselves, this study found that these messengers were viewed as less trustworthy, illustrating that reach does not necessarily correlate to trust. However, highly visible and/or highly followed messengers still have an important place in social issue campaigns as amplifiers and validators. They play a crucial role in generating awareness for social and societal causes.

In order to build knowledge, change attitudes, and inspire new behaviors through social issue efforts, marketers must look at the ecosystem in which individuals move from awareness, to understanding, to action, finding the right messenger (or messengers) for a particular issue. To design campaign efforts that are truly effective, today’s corporate and social impact leaders must look at campaigns across the Trusted Messengers Ecosystem. This ecosystem consists of three key layers of trusted messengers, all of which work together: Amplifiers offer their reach, Validators lend expertise and credibility, and Persuaders instill trust in the message directly to the audience.

Key Data Points
Who Are Trusted Messengers?
72% of the general population deem their spouse or partner most trustworthy for information around social issues, followed by immediate family members (66%), doctors/medical professionals (60%), close friends (59%), and scientists (51%).
  • Local or community leaders are seen as the next most trustworthy: pastors/religious leaders (40%), teachers or school leaders (39%), church members (32%), local business owners (31%).

Spouse/partner is the most trusted messenger across all generations, but by a difference of nearly 20% from Gen Z to Boomers.
  • Millennials (45%) trust academic experts the most of any generation--and by a difference of 10% compared to Baby Boomers (35%).

Two-thirds (68%) of Democrats trust scientists, compared to just 38% of Republicans and 44% of independents. Democrats (53%) 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).

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%).
  • Republicans also trust local business leaders (37%) slightly more than Democrats (31%) and Independents (29%).

Rural respondents are somewhat less trusting of academic or expert messengers, compared to those in urban and suburban locations:
  • 45% of people in rural areas consider scientists extremely/very trustworthy, compared to 54% in urban and 53% in suburban areas.
  • A third of rural respondents (32%) place trust in professors/academic experts, compared to 44% urban and 40% suburban respondents.
  • 33% of rural respondents trust teachers or school leaders, compared to 43% urban and 39% suburban respondents.
What Makes Messengers Trustworthy?
  • They are seen as honest (79%).
  • They are seen as consistent with their information (73%).
  • They are seen as unbiased (71%).
  • They are seen as presenting multiple points of view/give both sides of an issue (71%).
  • They are seen as someone I can trust for other information/advice (70%).They are seen as independent; do not have a conflict of interest (69%).
Who Are Trusted Messengers for Key Social Issues?
  • 61% say they consider their spouse/partner and doctor/medical professionals trustworthy for advice/opinions on COVID-19, followed by scientists (54%) and immediate family members (52%).

Mental Health
  • 62% turn to a doctor/medical professional for advice/opinions on the topic of mental health, followed by their spouse/partner (61%), immediate family (52%), scientists (50%), and close friends (45%).

Voting/Civic Engagement
  • Spouse/partner again ranks highest for trustworthiness on the topic of voting/civic engagement (61%), followed by immediate family (51%), close friends (43%), and other family members (38%).
  • While still in the lower tier, local business owners ranked slightly higher on this issue (22%) than for any of the other social issues included in the survey.

Racial Equity & Justice
  • Spouse/partner (61%) and immediate family members (52%) again top the list for trusted messengers on the issue of racial equity & justice.

Climate Change
  • Over half of respondents (53%) say scientists are trustworthy for advice/opinions on climate change, followed, like the other topics, by a spouse/partner (51%). Immediate family members are next (42%), followed by professors/academic experts (41%).

  • The top trusted messengers on the topic of addiction were doctors/medical professionals (61%), spouse/partner (58%), immediate family members (53%), and scientists (51%).
Who Inspires Americans to Take Action?
Regardless of issue, family members and close friends are among the top trusted messengers that motivate Americans to take action or want to take action.
  • Doctors/medical professionals are also influential in health-related topics (COVID-19, mental health, addiction).
  • Scientists are considered influential in COVID-19 and climate change (the latter also including professors/academic experts).
  • Non-profit organizations/groups also inspire action within racial equity & justice, as well as voting & civic engagement.

For those who have recently changed their stance on a social issue (16%, on average), the new stance stems from personal experience or new information that was presented by a trusted messenger.


Annual Influencer and Trusted Messenger Benchmark Study

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Who Are the New Trusted Messengers for Social-Good Campaigns?
By Lisa Sherman
We all look to reach Americans with reliable information they need about important social issues. But in these highly political and polarized times, who the message comes from is just as important—if not more—than the content of the message itself. So who do Americans trust on social issues today, and how can we maximize the impact these trusted messengers have on social-good campaigns?
February 15, 2022