Native advertising is the hot new thing nowadays, but remains controversial, as critics argue that it blurs the line between advertising and editorial content, with the potential to damage the
reputation of publishers who adopt it.
This week, advocates of native advertising got some ammunition in the form of a study by researchers at California Polytechnic State University,
which suggests that native ads have minimal negative impact on the credibility of news sites -- although this may simply be due to the fact that some people, especially older news consumers,
don’t identify them as ads in the first place.
The study, titled “Native Advertising and Digital Natives: The Effects of Age and Advertisement Format on News Web Site
Credibility Judgments” and published in ISOJ, the official journal of the International Symposium on Online Journalism, sent surveys to around 400 California Polytechnic State
University students and 150 respondents over the age of 45 via email to determine their attitudes toward news sites that carry native advertising, defined as “advertiser-sponsored content that
is designed to appear to the user as similar to editorial content.”
Overall, 257 people responded to the survey: 46.6% of these respondents were ages 18-24, and the rest were 45
or older, including 43% who fell in the 55-64 age range. In terms of media habits, most of the subjects were familiar and comfortable with online news consumption: 86.7% of the older respondents said
they had read news online in the past two days, compared to 85.5% of the younger group.
These subjects were randomly presented with one of two static images mimicking news Web sites
that were identical aside from the advertising, with one featuring a native ad and the other a traditional banner ad; both were real ads for real products. They were then asked a series of questions
about their perceptions of the news site, including whether they noticed the native or banner ads.
Overall, the researchers found that native ads had very little impact on the
credibility of news sites, with a less than 5% variation in subjects’ attitudes toward sites with native ads versus sites with traditional banner ads. Although there was a difference in
perceptions of credibility between younger and older subjects, this was apparently unrelated to the presence or absence of native advertising.
Older subjects were more likely to consider a
news Web site credible than younger subjects, regardless of what kind of advertising was on it.
Summing up, the study researchers concluded: “The study results here suggest that
the presence of sponsored versus traditional online advertising had no significant effect on the viewer’s perception of a news Web site’s credibility.” However, they also noted that
younger subjects were more likely than older subjects to identify native ads as being advertising. Thus, older subjects who didn’t identify native advertising as such might have a different
attitude if it were pointed out to them -- or if they read it believing it was editorial content, only to discover it was advertising.
In short, the study -- while encouraging for native
advertising proponents -- is unlikely to put the issues of trust and credibility to rest. On that note, the authors caution: “Publishers should be aware that, even when native advertising is
labeled, a significant number of audience members may not perceive it as such. It is possible that, once they discover that what they perceived as content is in fact advertising, they may lose trust
in the news site.”