Study Finds Few Users Can Distinguish Between Sponsored Posts and Actual News Articles

A study published in Mass Communication and Society in October 2018 found that very few readers of online news could distinguish between actual news stories and sponsored content/native advertising.

Among a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults (N = 738), we examined digital news readers’ recognition of a sponsored news article as advertising. Although fewer than 1 in 10 readers recognized the article as advertising, recognition was most likely among younger, more educated consumers who engage with news media for informational purposes.

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With regard to individual characteristics that increase the likelihood of native advertising recognition, we found support for the expectation that age and education are influential factors in digital news contexts. Despite fewer than 1 in 10 participants recognizing the content as advertising, those who did were younger and better educated. Furthermore, as predicted, those who used news for surveillance purposes (e.g. looking for information about communities, events, or politics, etc.) were also more likely to recognize native advertising. Thus, native advertising recognition was most prevalent among younger, more educated audiences who engage with news media for informational purposes. This study also reveals that the effects of native advertising recognition were moderated by news use motivation. That is, those who used news media for informational/surveillance purposes evaluated the article content significantly less favorably if they recognized it as commercial in nature compared to people who used news media for other motivations. This conditional negativity did not carry over to evaluations of the publisher. Persuasion knowledge, then, is most likely to foster attitude refinement (unfavorably) among informational news users. Although the PKM postulates that a “target” audience member’s persuasive coping reactions are informed by their knowledge structures of persuasion, the topic of the message, and the influencing agent (Friestad & Wright, 1994), nothing is mentioned about specific demographic characteristics and psychological motivations which may affect the persuasive process (Campbell & Kirmani, 2008). Thus, this study demonstrates that these individual characteristics are important underlying mechanisms that condition when and how consumers react to native advertising in digital news contexts.

It is fascinating that the percentage who recognized the native advertising was so low. This is reminiscent of common phishing campaigns I’ve seen where a quick glance through the target email reveals grammatical errors, misspellings, improper use of organizational logos, etc., and yet significant swaths of users have difficulty determining whether or not the message is genuine.

We are likely vastly over-estimating our and others’ ability to determine the legitimacy of various types of electronic messaging.

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