A recent Harris Interactive survey found some profound differences in how younger people and older people respond to the perceived veracity of advertising — one group tends to believe it and one group doesn’t. Care to guess?

If you said that 90 percent of U.S. adults 18-34 years old believed advertising tells the truth at least some of the time, you’d be correct. By contrast, 86 percent of those 35-44 say they believe ads are truthful at least some of the time, as do 84 percent of those 45-54, and 81 percent of those 55 years and older. You’d be correct to point out that we’re only talking less than a 10-point margin here.

On the other hand, about one in five adults 55 and older say they never trust that advertising is completely honest (18 percent), compared to less than one in 10 18-34-year-olds (8 percent). Now that’s a pretty large skepticism gap or gullibility gap, depending on your point of view.

Maybe that’s the source of the occasional friction between the Baby Boom and Millennial generations. Often we older folks perceive 20-somethings as overconfident and smugly assured of their facts to the point of pigheadedness. Given the results of this study, that behavior could be simply the result of their believing their own resume cover letter in which they describe themselves as God’s gift to your PR agency.

But perhaps their susceptibility to advertising can be attributed to their unprecedented immersion in the stuff since early youth. No previous generation has had such a constant barrage of advertising and marketing messages thrown at it in so many mediums. Television and radio are obvious sources, but add to that the Internet where pop-up ads lay in ambush and Web pages sport columns of classifieds on both sides of the screen, and product placements are ubiquitous in video games, movies, music and mobile phones.

It’s no surprise, then, that the 18-34-year-old group would tend to trust ads more than we older folks who never really bought into the idea that Charlie the Tuna was trying to get caught and canned by the Starkist company. If advertising is omnipresent in your life, to disbelieve it becomes impossible. Even to maintain a healthy skepticism toward advertising requires more mental energy than most people are willing or able to invest daily.

We older people, however, have the advantages of having experienced less ad immersion and experienced more of the culture of skepticism that shaped the 1960s and ’70s. If you’re not going to trust anyone over 30, you’re probably not going to believe that there’s something about an Aqua Velva man that women simply can’t resist.

Working with young people, I try to help them learn how to be skeptical of what they read and hear. In public relations, one must always suspect that there is a little man behind the curtain who is responsible for all the dazzling lights, action and bombast. I test my young colleagues often, and try to help them question their assumptions.

We may not be able to bridge the Skepticism/Gullibility Gap, but at least we can try to bring the chasm’s sides a little closer together.

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