Publishers in the U.S. and Canada are increasingly relying on native advertising to make up for waning print revenues, and brands have been more than happy for the opportunity to engage consumers with editorial-style content. But, the danger of content created or paid for by brands has always been that readers will feel they’ve been deceived into looking at ads.
A new study from The Reuters Institute shows the feeling remains strong among news consumers in the U.S. and U.K. In its latest Digital News Report, researchers exposed 2,300 consumers in the U.S. and 2,200 in the U.K. to real sponsored content, and polled them about their attitudes.
Though awareness of sponsored content in the U.S. was high — 36% said they see it “often” or “frequently,” and another 29% see it “sometimes” — nearly half (43%) said they’d felt “disappointed or deceived” when reading an article they later discovered was sponsored content.
In the U.S., sponsored content was more likely to diminish the reader’s opinion of the publication (28%) than the brand sponsoring the content (22%), but for most readers it had no impact, positive or negative, on their opinion of the publication (62%) or brand (68%).
Younger consumers were much more likely to respond positively to sponsored content. In the 18-24 range, fewer respondents said they had felt “deceived” by sponsored content, and a larger percentage said it would improve their perception of the sponsor brand (19%, versus 10% in the entire U.S. sample).
The study authors speculated that younger readers are more open to native ads because they’ve grown up in a more commercial environment, and they spend more of their time on “soft” news sites like BuzzFeed, where publisher independence isn’t as much of an issue.
Confusing labels at fault
For the most part, publishers are aware that native advertising can impact their credibility with readers. To try and mitigate those concerns, nearly every major publisher has adopted the best practice of clearly labeling sponsored content, to help readers distinguish it from editorial content.
But those labels are inconsistent across the media landscape, and as a result many readers remain unaware the articles they’ve clicked on are funded by brands.
With no clear guidance on proper terminology from standards bodies like the FTC, different publishers have identified native ads with various labels like “paid for by,” “sponsored by” and “promoted by,” which may describe different levels of involvement from the brand. Authors of the Reuters Institute’s study write, “The Guardian website has a page that outlines clearly the definitions of each of the terms it uses, however this is a bit like the ‘terms and conditions’ pages which are rarely read.”
Last week, Ad Age looked at how nearly two dozen top publishers identify sponsored content, including The Atlantic, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. It found publications using everything from “Sponsored Bulletin” to “Brand Publisher.” Not one of them uses the term “advertisement.”
‘Soft’ sponsored content less objectionable
Like younger consumers, adults were more open to native ads on content sites or sections focused on entertainment and lifestyle. They frowned on brand partnerships in hard news publications like The New York Times, even if they found the content engaging and informative.
In focus group discussions, The Reuters Institute found participants tended to agree that serious news topics, like business or politics, should be off limits to brand sponsors. Entertainment, lifestyle, fashion and automotive were seen as more appropriate, since brands already have a substantial presence in those spaces, and since brand influence over those subjects was seen as less harmful in their lives. “Lying or deceiving me about these topics will have no lasting effects on my life,” one 32-year-old U.S. respondent said.
Discussing specific examples of native ads reinforced that separation. The U.S. focus groups found a BuzzFeed article, “12 Holiday Treats To Spike With Tequila,” helpful and interesting, and had no problem with it being sponsored by Sauza. Yet, shown the New York Times’ much-discussed article on women inmates sponsored by Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, they were more skeptical of the sponsor and the content, even though they agreed it was high quality.
“Some found the [New York Times] content interesting, whilst others felt perturbed that it was advertising dressed up as news,” the authors wrote. “The Buzzfeed example to them wasn’t pretending to be news.”