BY DENISE SEVICK BORTREE
I love to cycle, and I enjoy reading about new training techniques. The other day I came across an article in Bicycling magazine about the advantage of training at high altitudes. Interesting. But, somewhere around the fifth paragraph, the article mentions a natural supplement to boost performance. I’m immediately suspicious. I glance down the page and back up to the top. And, there is the word: “sponsored.” I’ve been reading an advertisement. Now I feel duped, like I wasted my time. The irony is that I have been studying advertising disguised as editorial content, and this was an especially effective one...at least for me.
I suspect everyone has this experience at some point. In the past we called these articles “advertorials,” but today they’re referred to as “native advertisements.” The name reflects how the pieces appear to be native content; it belongs here; it fits in naturally with other content. According to Business Insider, native advertising has been a rapidly growing business over the past few years, with future projections skyrocketing. Some of this growth is due to its frequent use in social media, but some is due to new opportunities in traditional media – newspaper, magazine, radio, television – both online and in their original formats. These are sources of news that we assume offer unbiased reporting on issues (and products). But most newspapers now sell native ads, and some highly credible media sources, like The New York Times, employ writers who will develop such pieces for a company (see http://paidpost.nytimes.com/netflix/women-inmates-separate-but-not-equal.html#.U5tBY5FH3FI), ensuring that the quality of the native content writing matches the editorial content.
So, what’s the harm? Sure, a native ad might promote travel destinations, financial products, or sports equipment, but in the end, most people realize it’s an advertisement. And, if anything, readers are disappointed in the company that tried to “fool” them into thinking they are reading a real article, not a promotional piece. Right? Actually, no. That’s not right. Research conducted by my laboratory group at Penn State University and published in the November 2016 issue of American Behavioral Scientist tells a different story.1 Here are three important findings from our study:
- Few people realize they are reading a native advertisement. Research by Wojdynski and Evans at the University of Georgia2 found that as few as 26% of readers realize they were reading a native advertisement, even if it was clearly labeled. Our own study also found that few people identified a native ad as advertising unless they were primed to recognize it.
- Corporate reputation isn’t affected by native advertising. We might think that corporations are buying native advertising at their own risk, but it turns out people don’t really change their opinions about companies that sponsor native ads. Our study looked at the differences between those who knew they were reading a native ad and those who didn’t. We found no difference in the way they evaluated the sponsoring companies.
- Media reputation is affected by native advertising. Unlike corporate reputation, media trust was eroded by native advertising. In our study, participants who realized they were reading a native advertisements trusted the media source (e.g., The New York Times) less than those who thought it was an article rather than an advertisement. Awareness of native advertising reduces media trust. The effects that we saw were strongest for high credibility media. In other words, media outlets that typically have a strong reputation for objective journalism (e.g., The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, CNN, etc.) are the ones who suffer the most from native advertising. Why does this matter? On some level, a native ad works because people assume it is an article written objectively (to journalistic standards) and it usually represents more than one side of an argument. When readers mistakenly assume a native ad is an article, the credibility of news is transferred to the ad. When/if people realize they are reading an ad, trust is violated.
I can only conclude that media with high standards for journalistic integrity stand to lose the most from native advertising, and these outlets may want to reconsider the advertising they present.
I’m not saying native advertising is never a good idea. I don’t regard Bicycling magazine as an entirely objective source of information. So, the impact to its reputation is minimal (though I will read it with a bit more skepticism next time).
Most likely, the effect of native ad disclosure that we measured was due in part to the surprise people felt when they realized a high-credibility media outlet was publishing native advertising. And, over time, that effect may diminish as more readers and viewers come to expect it. But, in the meantime, what are we sacrificing?
1 Wu, M., Huang, Y., Li, R., Bortree, D.S., Yang, F., Xiao, A., & Wang, R. (2016). “A Tale of Two Sources in Native Advertising: Examining the Effects of Source Credibility and Priming on Content, Organizations, and Media Evaluations. American Behavioral Scientist, 60, 1492-1509.
2 Wojdynski, B. W. & Evans, N.J. (2016). “Going native: Effects of disclosure position and language on the recognition and evaluation of online native advertising.” Journal of Advertising, 45(2), 157-168.