#COMCOLLOQUIUM: Persuasion Knowledge in an Era of Covert Influence

As news companies continue to evolve and grow their online platforms, sponsored content has become a popular way for news sites to get companies to pay for advertising, while still turning out interesting content for readers. But what happens when the line between advertisement and news content is blurred too much, and readers can no longer distinguish where the ad ends and the news begins?

Dr. Michelle Amazeen, assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations, presented her research about sponsored content Thursday. She shared the findings of her research over the past several years, which reveal how various factors, including the topic of the sponsored content and news consumption habits of the reader, can positively or negatively impact the reader’s perception of the content.

Dr. Michelle Amazeen speaks to students at Boston University’s College of Communicaiton.

Her work, published in November 2019 in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, is titled, “News in an Era of Content Confusion: Effects of News Use Motivations and Context on Native Advertising and Digital News Perceptions.”

Boston University College of Communication Dean Mariette DiChristina was present at the event, and she noted the importance of this topic in the evolution of online news.

“There are ways to signal sponsored content, but the average person may not notice them,” DiChristina said. “This is something in the media we are all discovering together, and we are lucky to have researchers studying this area here at BU.”

Amazeen explained that sponsored content, also called native advertising, is a type of covert marketing practice where an ad mimics or appears native to the platform on which it appears. Amazeen clarified that native advertising can and does occur frequently on social media, but her research focuses on native advertising on digital news platforms.

Amazeen provided various examples of native advertising on news websites and explained how the companies succeeded or failed in clearly disclosing content that was paid for by a sponsor. She noted that font size and color, placement of the ad disclaimer on the web page and whether a disclaimer exists at all can all contribute to whether or not the reader understands that they are consuming sponsored content.

She focused on two examples of native advertising published by The New York Times, which were main subjects in her study.

The first, titled, “Grit and Grace,” is a paid partnership with Cole Haan that explores the difficulties that professional ballerinas face in mastering their craft. Amazeen designated this piece as “soft news,” more for entertainment than informational purposes.

A screenshot of the native advertising content on The New York Times’ website shows they designate sponsored content as a “paid post” at the top of the page.

“There’s no real hard sales pitch for buying clothes on shoes or products. That’s not the point of this type of advertising. The point is to create favorable associations with the brand,” Amazeen said.

Amazeen compared this post with another example of native advertising produced by The Times, this one paid for by Chevron. “How Our Energy Needs Are Changing, In A Series Of Interactive Charts” looks at the past, present and future of energy consumption in the United States. Amazeen used this as her example of “hard news” native advertising, because it deals with a topic that influences significant amounts of data that have social, political, ecological and economic impact. 

This screenshot shows another example of native advertising on The Times’ website in the same position at the top of the web page.

While these two examples of native advertising appear almost identical in their disclosure of sponsored content, appearing at the top of the page, Amazeen stated that one major component differentiates the two in their perception by the reader: context.

Amazeen quoted Friestad and Wright’s Persuasion Knowledge Model, developed in 1994, to explain that when consuming native advertising, readers “draw upon three knowledge structures to interpret this information.” They draw upon what they know about the topic, what they know about the source and their knowledge from past advertising experiences.

This final component is particularly problematic with online native advertising, according to Amazeen, because, especially for older populations who are less versed in online platforms and for people who consume less news content, “If you don’t have any past experiences with this type of covert native advertising, you may not recognize what it is,” she said.

Amazeen brought up another issue, which is that the Federal Trade Commission has not standardized their requirements for what the disclosures on native advertisements need to say.

“We saw The New York Times is using the words ‘paid post,’” she said. “How many people know what paid post means?”

In her study, Amazeen tested a number of factors involving the appearance of The New York Times native advertising examples and the information that the test subjects were given about the content to see if any differences arose between the hard news and soft news pieces.

She found that, aligning with her predictions, hard news rather than soft news topics resulted in less favorable perceptions of the content itself, whereas soft news native advertising was more accepted. Amazeen believes that this could be because readers already assume an element of commerciality to soft news content, making them less averse to seeing it in native advertising form.

A student writes down Dr. Amazeen’s insights.

Amazeen also found that when people were exposed to hard news oriented native advertising, they then evaluated subsequent reporting by the organization as less credible.

She followed up this finding with the question, “Why are publishers using this?”

Amazeen noted that news companies’ struggling to adapt to digital-first content and the loss of revenue from print advertising is a likely culprit, but that native advertising, especially when implemented with vague disclosures or through hard news topics, is problematic and will likely hurt news companies in the long term.

“There’s a lot of great journalism that’s going on,” Amazeen clarified. “And I don’t want this to take away from the work that those incredible journalists are doing. And at the same time, I don’t want to take anything away from the great advertisers that are out there telling great stories and making great commercials.”

However, Amazeen closed with suggestions for publishers, news consumers and trade policymakers based on her findings on how to improve native advertising production and consumption online.

She called on publishers to think carefully about the context of their native advertising content.

“If you’re a publisher, and you’re in the hard news business, you need to think really carefully, whether you want to be using hard news oriented native advertisements. Maybe just stick with the soft news, make them transparent and use good disclosures,” Amazeen said.

For audiences, Amazeen stressed that, “We need to be thinking about and realizing that we are likely consuming a lot more advertising than we realize, especially in a soft news context, and this is why media literacy education is so important.”

Amazeen concluded by calling on policymakers and news organizations to help combat deceptive native advertising practices by implementing new regulations to standardize how sponsored content is disclosed and make sure that those disclosures are as transparent as possible.

“These platforms, they need to be thinking about the architecture of their platforms, and whether it is truly beneficial to society,” Amazeen said.

As DiChristina put the issue simply, “How can we as a society connect if we don’t know who to trust?”

Sara Magalio, Editor in Chief

Sara Magalio is a first-year journalism graduate student in COM at Boston University. She received her B.A. in journalism and B.F.A. in dance performance from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas, Texas. She was born and raised in New Jersey, and is thrilled to be back in the northeast. Sara is passionate about writing and sharing compelling stories with readers.

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