A consumer survey, conducted exclusively for Advertising Age by Market Facts, found 39% of Americans polled said they're aware of publicity over scandals affecting financial and brokerage institutions.
Fifty-two percent of those who were aware of the problems said the knowledge has affected their level of trust in the industry, while 77% said it has affected their investment decisions.
Fueling their concern is a recent flurry of news media headlines that chronicle several scandals-both big and small.
Among the developments of the past several months:
Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. settled charges that Florida agents had sold life insurance policies disguised as retirement plans and "tricked" customers into buying unnecessary policies.
Fidelity Investments admitted it had knowingly reported day-old results for 150 mutual funds when it couldn't meet deadlines for listing current figures.
Prudential Securities faced thousands of claims, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, after selling fraudulent limited partnerships going back to the '80s.
Others-including Kidder, Peabody & Co. and Salomon Bros.-also have faced scandals with a narrower impact on average investors.
But the object of this crisis of investor confidence has tended to be more general than specific.
When asked to name a company involved in a "publicized scandal," just 13% surveyed said Met Life, 7% named Prudential and 4% said Kidder Peabody. (A handful even named Whitewater.)
"There isn't a financial-services company that hasn't been through this," said Ronna Lichtenberg, Prudential Securities' marketing director. As a result, she said Prudential hasn't faced "some of the reaction you'd think, given the hype. The vast majority of clients and prospects care about what their broker is like, are they making any money and do they have enough for retirement."
Despite the embarrassment, Prudential stuck with a TV campaign, created by Deutsch, New York, that features President-CEO Hardwick Simmons promising "Straight Talk" from his brokers. (One spot in the series featured a broker who was later sued for misleading and then "abandoning" a church official; the suit was later dismissed.)
Although the campaign was widely viewed as a defensive measure, Prudential said it was developed before the scandal erupted last fall. Spots now running on cable TV will be pulled next month as Prudential figures out its future direction.
Fidelity took a direct approach, sending out apology letters, but said it was receiving few inquiries about the problem. The mutual fund marketer's toll-free number last week gave a forthright explanation for the snafu, and advised "nobody's out any money."
Executives at several of the companies involved say it's nearly impossible to isolate the impact of negative publicity on their bottom lines, especially given the volatile stock market of recent months.
They say much of the reaction has come from the New York area, but acknowledge public relations and customer-service staffs have been busier of late.
The Ad Age survey, conducted Aug. 12-14 by Market Facts' TeleNation consumer panel, found older, more affluent Americans, especially those in the Northeast, were far more likely to be aware of scandals. The telephone survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Executives say the well-known, brand-name companies ultimately stand the best chance of recovering. But to do so, they must move to regain trust with more reassuring ads, direct marketing and PR support.
"These kinds of problems drive up the cost of communicating because they require that people get a lot of comforting messages before they will proceed," said Jim Taylor, general manager at Hill & Knowlton, New York, and former CEO at Yankelovich Partners.