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The Deceptiveness of Sponsored News Articles: How Readers Recognize and Perceive Native Advertising

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Sponsored news is a form of native advertising that has engendered much hope as a solution for digital publishing revenue woes, but also much concern about whether the average consumer can discern its advertising nature. Recent U.S. federal guidelines and industry recommendations preach clear and conspicuous labeling of sponsored news articles, but little is known about how individual readers interpret these labels, and how their interpretation shapes their understanding of article content. The present study contributes knowledge to the former areas by presenting the results of a between-subjects experiment (N = 343) that tested the effects of four disclosure characteristics (proximity, visual prominence, wording clarity, and logo presence) on recognition of the sponsored content as advertising, and by analyzing the psychological process through which such recognition influences perceptions of the article and the sponsor. The results show that while logo presence and visual prominence increase the odds of recognition, logo presence also increases misperception of the disclosure label as a stand-alone display advertisement. Recognition of the article as advertising led to decreased perceptions of article quality, attitude toward the sponsor, and intent to share the article. A serial mediation analysis shows that the effects of recognition on attitudes and intent to share are primarily mediated through conceptual persuasion knowledge activation and perceived deceptiveness of the article. Implications of these findings for practitioners and for the application of persuasion theories to covert advertising are discussed.
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DOI: 10.1177/0002764216660140
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Article
The Deceptiveness of
Sponsored News Articles:
How Readers Recognize and
Perceive Native Advertising
Bartosz W. Wojdynski1
Abstract
Sponsored news is a form of native advertising that has engendered much hope as a
solution for digital publishing revenue woes, but also much concern about whether
the average consumer can discern its advertising nature. Recent U.S. federal guidelines
and industry recommendations preach clear and conspicuous labeling of sponsored
news articles, but little is known about how individual readers interpret these labels,
and how their interpretation shapes their understanding of article content. The
present study contributes knowledge to the former areas by presenting the results
of a between-subjects experiment (N = 343) that tested the effects of four disclosure
characteristics (proximity, visual prominence, wording clarity, and logo presence) on
recognition of the sponsored content as advertising, and by analyzing the psychological
process through which such recognition influences perceptions of the article and the
sponsor. The results show that while logo presence and visual prominence increase
the odds of recognition, logo presence also increases misperception of the disclosure
label as a stand-alone display advertisement. Recognition of the article as advertising
led to decreased perceptions of article quality, attitude toward the sponsor, and intent
to share the article. A serial mediation analysis shows that the effects of recognition
on attitudes and intent to share are primarily mediated through conceptual persuasion
knowledge activation and perceived deceptiveness of the article. Implications of these
findings for practitioners and for the application of persuasion theories to covert
advertising are discussed.
Keywords
deception, native advertising, sponsored content, online news, media effects
1University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Bartosz Wojdynski, University of Georgia, 120 Hooper St., Athens, GA 30602-0002, USA.
Email: bartw@uga.edu
660140ABSXXX10.1177/0002764216660140American Behavioral ScientistWojdynski
research-article2016
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2 American Behavioral Scientist
In recent years, online publishers, social networks, and advertising companies have
developed a variety of advertising formats that allow paid messages to not only be
integrated within pieces of original editorial content but also to resemble them, often
in ways that may confuse consumers as to both their source and their paid nature
(Wojdynski & Golan, IN PRESS). These new ads are deliberately designed to engage
the viewer in ways that traditional display ads online often failed to do (Drèze &
Hussherr, 2003), by providing users with advertisements that consist of content similar
to noncommercial content on the site. Such “native” advertising formats span a wide
gamut, from text articles and videos to paid social media posts and recommendation
links that take the user away from the site. Content publishers have invested heavily in
native advertising in recent years, with many national news organizations launching
in-house “content studios” in the service of creating compelling journalistic content on
behalf of, and often with input from, advertisers (Ferrer Conill, 2016). The resulting
products, usually text articles or video stories, are typically referred to as “sponsored
content” due to the advertisement’s resemblence to and integration within the content
of the host publisher site (Campbell, Cohen, & Ma, 2014).
The degree of the similarity of such ads to noncommercial content, and questions
about consumers’ ability to discern between the two, has raised a lot of concern among
consumer advocates, educators, and regulators about the potential deceptiveness of
native advertisements. When consumers determine that a message has commercial or
persuasive intent, they are more likely to engage in defensive processing and apply a
higher level of scrutiny to claims made in the message (Friestad & Wright, 1994; Wei,
Fischer, & Main, 2008). This enhanced critical processing may be more necessary in
the cases of native advertising than in other kinds of online content, because in native
ads, the publisher has a financial incentive to portray a particular company or product
in a light that is favorable or uncritical. However, research to date has shown that con-
sumers either frequently miss seeing disclosures altogether (Wojdynski & Evans,
2016) or at least interpret them as explaining that the article itself is a paid advertise-
ment (Boerman, van Reijmersdal, & Neijens, 2015; Wojdynski & Evans, 2016).
Widespread concern about the association between native advertising and deception
has led to self-regulatory guidelines issued by advertising associations (Interactive
Advertising Bureau, 2013).
While a handful of studies have used experimental methods to test specific char-
acteristics of message design in covert advertising formats ranging from print adver-
torials (Kim, Pasadeos, & Barban, 2001) and video news releases (Nelson, Wood, &
Paek, 2009) to television product placement (Boerman et al., 2015) and online news
features (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016), there is little evidence to date that can be car-
ried across from one study to another about what characteristics of how an online
message is disclosed influence recipients’ likelihood of correctly identifying it as
advertising.
The present study seeks to address this void by examining several aspects of the
psychology of consumer recognition of sponsored news stories as advertising. First,
the study tests how three disclosure characteristics promoted in the 2015 U.S.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines on disclosure recognition (prominence,
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Wojdynski 3
proximity, clarity of wording) and one that was not explicitly mentioned (presence of
sponsor logo) affect consumers’ likelihood of identifying sponsored news content as
advertising. Second, the study examines differences in perceptions of article content in
three groups of users: those who did not recognize the article as advertising, those who
did recognize the content as advertising, and those who misinterpreted the disclosure
as a standalone advertisement. Finally, the study examines the role of conceptual per-
suasion knowledge activation and perceived deceptiveness in shaping perceptions of
the article and the sponsor.
Literature Review
Online native advertising has been seen as a boon to both online publishers and to
advertisers who are trying to reach a public that consumes an increasing portion of its
media online (Boland, 2016). Much to the chagrin of the publishers, advertisers, and
agencies that are profiting from the growth of sponsored content, consumer and regu-
latory concerns about the practice’s deceptiveness persist. In addition to continued
concern expressed in editorials, several recent studies have shown that most consum-
ers perceive sponsored articles as journalism, not advertising (Hoofnagle &
Meleshinsky, 2015; Lazauskas, 2015; Wojdynski & Evans, 2016). As with other for-
mats of potentially deceptive advertising, sponsored articles seek to minimize the
extent to which consumers are given sufficient information to make well-formed deci-
sions about the content of the advertisement.
The blend of editorial and commercial content that native advertising offers is not
a new phenomenon; it has analogous antecedents in print advertorials, announcer-
voiced radio spots, and video news releases. However, because online media con-
sumption encompasses such a wide variety of presentational modalities, sources, and
functions, and because native ads and disclosures can appear in a wide variety of
forms and locations, developing proficiency at spotting paid content online is a more
difficult task. As a result of the inconsistencies in disclosure, the potential for consum-
ers to be deceived is that much greater.
Interest in protecting consumers from being deceived by native advertising has to
regulatory guidelines about how such content ought to be labeled. Past restrictions
on deceptive advertising have typically focused on restricting deceptive claims
made in the content of the advertisement, rather than deception caused by mislead-
ing or covert format. To address the uncertainty regarding design of native advertis-
ing and the potential for consumer deception, the FTC issued guidelines in late 2015
regarding how such content should be disclosed. The document offers three main
categories of disclosure guidelines: proximity and placement, prominence, and clar-
ity of meaning (FTC, 2015), and offers some examples that span various native
advertising formats. While the FTC’s guidelines are technically advisory and not
binding, the commission can wield them bring a civil enforcement charges against
advertisers and publishers that run afoul of the guidelines, or use leverage from the
threat of charges to settle, as they did in an early 2016 case involving clothing store
Lord & Taylor (Tadena, 2016).
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4 American Behavioral Scientist
How Users Recognize Advertising Disguised as Content
The ability of consumers to recognize that a given message is advertising is an impor-
tant determinant of how that message shapes their attitudes and behaviors. According
to the persuasion knowledge model (PKM), when consumers recognize a persuasive
attempt, their existing knowledge about persuasion is activated (Friestad & Wright,
1994). The extent to which this knowledge is activated is an important determinant of
how the advertising message is evaluated; the greater the extent, the more likely con-
sumers are to evaluate the message critically, and thus to be skeptical of claims made
therein (Campbell & Kirmani, 2000; Wei et al., 2008). Advertisements that explicitly
mimic the form of noncommercial content such as news stories or social media posts
impose a high bar to the activation of persuasion knowledge.
By presenting information in a format that is familiar to consumers, but familiar to
them as non-advertising content, these ads are likely to trigger consumers’ prior asso-
ciations with those particular forms of media content, which then form a lens through
which the consumer views the content. This process is often discussed in terms of
schemata, which can be broadly defined as “data structures for representing the generic
constructs formed in memory” (Rumelhart & Ortney, 1977, p. 101). Activation of a
news-based schema, for example, may lead consumers to assume that the content is
objective and editorially independent from stakeholders in the subject matter, which
have long been viewed as journalistic norms (Carlson, 2015). Scholars have also pos-
tulated that persuasion knowledge activation may be related to the activation of adver-
tising-specific schemata that helps consumers process a novel persuasive message in
light of their past experiences with advertisements (Evans & Park, 2015). Research
has shown support for the idea of differential schema activation based on labels, with
unlabeled advertorial content in print being less likely to activate an advertising
schema than traditional advertising (Kim & Hancock, 2016).
Our understanding of how consumers recognize advertising in potentially decep-
tive formats has improved in recent years, but is still relatively limited. Because native
advertisements can take such varied forms, the disclosure labels that identify a particu-
lar piece of content as commercial are often the only characteristic that distinguishes
paid from nonpaid content. This can be seen in sponsored social media posts, where
Twitter uses a “promoted” disclosure, and Facebook’s posts are headed with “Suggested
Post” and include the word “sponsored” below the poster’s name. Disclosure practices
on news websites vary, but labels most frequently include some form of the word
“sponsored,” and are usually located near the top of the story page (Wojdynski &
Evans, 2014).
Research findings indicate that characteristics of the disclosure can also make a
difference in recognition of sponsored content, although most studies to date have
shown evidence that a majority of consumers do not pay attention to disclosure labels.
Boerman et al. (2015) found that 56% of readers of sponsored social media posts
reported not being able to recognize a disclosure when it was shown after the fact, and
Wojdynski and Evans (2016) showed that more than a third of readers of a sponsored
news story never even glanced at the disclosure label. Both the wording and
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Wojdynski 5
the positioning of textual disclosures on sponsored online news stories have shown
participants’ ability to recognize the articles as advertising (Wojdynski & Evans,
2016). Participants were the least likely to identify sponsored content when disclo-
sures were located above the start of the article text.
To expand the research on effects of disclosure features on recognition of spon-
sored news stories, the present study will examine how the characteristics explicitly
stated in the FTC’s disclosure guidelines influence consumers’ ability to recognize
sponsored articles as advertising. The inquiry will be guided by the following research
question:
Research Question 1: To what extent do the (a) positioning, (b) wording, (c) visual
prominence, and (d) logo presence in sponsorship disclosures in a sponsored news
article influence consumers’ ability to recognize the article as advertising?
Impediments to Disclosure Effectiveness
Merely noticing an advertising disclosure in sponsored content is a necessary first step
to recognizing that the content itself is paid advertising. However, as previous research
has shown, merely viewing a disclosure is not sufficient to ensure recognition. For
example, in one study, the most effective disclosure was one embedded in the middle
of article text, and was viewed by 90% of participants, but only 40% recognized the
article as advertising (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016). The drop-off between attention and
recognition was more pronounced for the other two disclosure position conditions;
overall, only 11 of the 38 viewers who saw the disclosure correctly recognized the
article as advertising.
This discrepancy raises questions about why a large proportion of participants who
see a disclosure do not recognize the article as advertising. Clarity of disclosure lan-
guage is one important consideration that is mentioned specifically in the FTC guide-
lines and borne out by empirical studies. However, the labeling used in the eye-tracking
study, “Sponsored Content by Dell,” would be expected to be among the clearest of
labeling options, using relatively clear language (“sponsored” rather than other con-
ventions “presented by”) and mentioning the sponsor by name. Thus, while it is pos-
sible that some viewers did not correctly understand the meaning of the words, it is
more likely that perhaps they understood the words but did not accurately apply them
to the content.
Disclosures on sponsored news content are typically located outside of the content
text, contain references to an advertiser or sponsor, and may be distinguished from the
main content by virtue of background color or a border box (Wojdynski & Evans,
2014). They also are often ignored by consumers. All four of these characteristics are
all things that native ad disclosures share with general online display advertising, which
consumers have shown a tendency to disfavor and avoid (Cho & Cheon, 2004). Given
the relative lack of standardization in how native advertising is disclosed, it is possible
that many types of native advertising disclosures resemble display advertisements, and
thus are treated by consumers the same way display advertisements are treated. To
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6 American Behavioral Scientist
examine whether some of the lack of recognition of native advertising may be due to
their being misperceived as display ads, we asked the following research question:
Research Question 2: To what extent do the (a) positioning, (b) wording, (c) visual
prominence, and (d) logo presence in sponsorship disclosures in a sponsored news
article influence consumers’ misperception of the disclosure as a display
advertisement?
For consumers, paying attention to disclosure labels may be necessary to recognize
deceptively formatted advertisements, but it is not sufficient. Recognition of spon-
sored content as advertising is contingent on activation of relevant persuasion knowl-
edge. The likelihood that participants can activate relevant persuasion knowledge
should be contingent on them having some knowledge of online native advertising that
can be activated. As a result, we also predicted the following:
Hypothesis 1: Participants who have a higher preexisting familiarity with native
advertising will be more likely to recognize the article as advertising.
Consequences of Recognizing Sponsored Content
The motivations behind the guidelines that urge transparency in native advertising
disclosures are rooted in the belief that consumers will process the content of the mes-
sage differently if they believe it is commercial or biased. The PKM posits that when
consumers perceive a message to be persuasive and/or commercial in nature, their
relevant knowledge of persuasive messages is activated, which typically leads to
heightened scrutiny of the message content (Friestad & Wright, 1994, 1995), and often
to more negative attitudes toward the advertiser (Shrum, Liu, Nespoli, & Lowrey,
2012). In the case of sponsored news articles, these negative perceptions have also
been shown to extend to the article itself (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016). On the basis of
the PKM and previous research, the following hypotheses are offered:
Hypothesis 2: Participants who recognize the article as advertising will have
greater levels of conceptual persuasion knowledge activation than those who do not
recognize the article as advertising.
Hypothesis 3a-c: Participants who recognize the article as advertising will have
lower (a) perceptions of article quality, (b) attitudes toward the brand, and (c) inten-
tion to share the article than those who do not recognize the article as advertising.
Studies have shown that when consumers do determine that a message has persua-
sive intent, this often engenders distrust of the message sender and contents (e.g.,
Boerman, van Reijmersdal, & Neijens, 2012; Wei et al., 2008). When the message is
presented in a format that is familiar as a noncommercial format, such as a news arti-
cle, this distrust may be heightened; consumers may additionally feel that the adver-
tiser intentionally tried to deceive consumers by making the article’s advertising status
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Wojdynski 7
more difficult to recognize. Because native advertisements may vary in their disclo-
sure practices (e.g., Boerman & van Reijmersdal, 2016), and consumers may vary in
both their attention to these labels (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016) and their familiarity
with native advertisements in general, two consumers who correctly identify that a
message is advertising may still vary in the degree to which they perceive the message
as deceptive.
Most research on consumers’ perceptions of deceptiveness in advertising has
focused on deceptive claims made by the advertiser. Such research shows, intuitively,
that consumers who felt misled or deceived had negative evaluations of the advertise-
ment and advertiser (Darke & Ritchie, 2007). In the context of sponsored online news
in particular, consumers who recognize content as advertising have been shown to
have more negative attitudes toward the article and the advertising brand (Wojdynski
& Evans, 2016), although perceived deceptiveness has not been examined as a mecha-
nism for such effects. Consumers who recognize a sponsored article and perceive the
article as deceptive will likely have stronger negative reactions toward the article and
advertiser than those who did not find it deceptive, and negative perceptions of the
article and advertiser would make readers less likely to intend to share the article. The
present examination of the relationships between these measures was guided by the
following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 4: Recognition of the article as advertising will indirectly influence
intent to share the article through causally linked multiple mediators of (a) concep-
tual persuasion knowledge, (b) perceived deceptiveness, (c) article credibility, and
(d) attitude toward the sponsoring brand.
Method
Overview
In a 3 (disclosure proximity: within article/near/far) × 2 (disclosure prominence: high/
low) by 2 (disclosure clarity: high/low) × 2 (brand presence in article: low/high) facto-
rial between-subjects online experiment, participants were asked to read an online
news article as they would if they had accessed it via a social media link. On comple-
tion of the article, participants accessed an online questionnaire containing a series of
questions about their perceptions of the article and its contents.
Participants
Participants (N = 343) were U.S. resident adults between the ages of 21 and 66
recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online task labor site. Participants repre-
sented 46 of the 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. Mean participant age was
38.4 years (SD = 12.2), and 57% of participants were female. Seventy-eight percent of
participants reported their race as White, 9% as Black, 5% as Latino, 4% as Asian, and
1% as Native American.
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8 American Behavioral Scientist
Stimulus Materials
Twenty-four versions of an online news story were created. Each story was formatted
as a single-page online news article. The article detailed the construction of affordable
housing apartment buildings. The article was 965 words in length, and was formatted
in a single 600-pixel-wide column. Five story images and captions were included
throughout the story, and a large banner image was presented under the headline. The
article text was based on a published example of native advertising from the Washington
Post. The wording of the original story was unchanged, and page layout was unchanged
with the exception of the disclosure manipulations. The sponsoring company was
mentioned by name in the story body text a total of five times, and was not mentioned
or depicted in the photographs and captions.
Disclosure Clarity was manipulated in line with recommendations from the FTC
and previous research on disclosure label wording (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016). The
high-clarity condition disclosure used the wording “Paid Advertisement by [sponsor].”
The low-clarity condition disclosure used the wording “Partner Content by [sponsor]”
Logo Presence was manipulated by including a 150 × 150-pixel advertiser logo
under the text of the disclosure in the logo present condition, and by including no
image in the no-logo present condition.
Visual Prominence was manipulated by varying the visual presentation of the dis-
closure wording text. In the low-prominence condition, the words of the disclosure
were presented using 12 point font in a 40% gray on a white background, with a font
weight of 300, and in a font family that matched the body text of the story. In the high-
prominence condition, the words of the disclosure were presented using 16 point font
in black on a white background, with a font weight of 500, and in a font-family that
contrasted with the body text of the story (serif rather than sans-serif).
Disclosure Proximity was manipulated by positioning the disclosure in one of three
distinct areas of the article page. In the top condition, the disclosure was located imme-
diately above the story headline. In the right-rail condition, the disclosure had a verti-
cal position located immediately at the start of the article text, and a horizontally
placed to the right of the text column. In the embedded condition, the disclosure was
located within the text copy, starting after the second paragraph of text.
Control Measures
Familiarity With Native Advertising. Participants’ familiarity with native advertising was
measured after participants completed the dependent measures, as part of a sequence
of questions assessing familiarity with various terms related to online publishing. Par-
ticipants were asked to rate how their familiarity with the meaning of the term Native
Advertising on a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from “very unfamiliar” to “very
familiar” (M = 2.13, SD = 1.24).
Viewing Time. Participant’s time spent on the article was measured using unobtrusive
timer that measured how much time elapsed between when participants clicked to load
the article and when they left the article page (M = 248.81 seconds, SD = 196.12).
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Wojdynski 9
Dependent Measures
Recognition of the Content as Advertising. Recognition of the article as advertising was
measured by coding participants’ responses to series of three questions immediately
after they finished viewing the article (Tutaj & van Reijmersdal, 2012; Wojdynski &
Evans, 2016). Participants were first asked “Was there any advertising on the Web
page you just viewed?” Two additional questions followed: “If yes, What area(s) of
the page contained advertising?” and “If yes, please indicate in as much detail as pos-
sible what characteristics of the content you mentioned led you to believe that it was
advertising.”
The answers were coded by two trained coders naïve to participants’ study condi-
tion into a single measure of advertising recognition. Answers were coded as indica-
tive of recognition (“1”) if participants said yes to the first question and indicated in
their subsequent responses that they believed any part of the article itself was advertis-
ing. Answers were coded as indicative of lack of recognition (“0”) if participants said
“no” to the first question, or if participants’ responses to the subsequent questions
mentioned only display advertising content (of which there was none). For all
responses in which participants answered “yes” to the initial question, two trained cod-
ers coded their used their responses to the open-ended question into one of three cat-
egories: (1) recognized the article as advertising, (2) did not recognize the article as
advertising, or (3) ambiguous. Original coding passes produced 96% raw agreement
between coders, and all cases in which coders disagreed were coded as ambiguous. A
second round of independent coding with two coders was conducted to resolve the
ambiguous cases, with coders instructed to code fully ambiguous responses that
referred to the disclosure but did not make reference to it as an advertisement with (“an
ad for CITI,” “a banner ad”) as advertising recognition, and cases for which the par-
ticipant made reference to the disclosure but expressly referred to it as an independent
display advertisement for the sponsor as “misidentification.”
Typical examples of cases of recognition of the article included the following: “The
entire page was advertising/The article was a brand connect spam piece”; “The article
was basically an advertisement for Citi/Citi’s prominence [made it] seem like an
advertisement to me”; “Was a Citibank logo at the beginning of the article/Maybe not
traditional advertising, but advertising nonetheless.” Examples of cases coded as mis-
identification included “On the right side/It specifically looked like a banner ad, but I
chose to ignore it” and “The article was pushed over or around the advertising/paid
advertising from Citi/Citi provided the funding for the project.” The final count of
participants’ responses into the three categories showed that 60 participants recog-
nized the article as advertising, 233 participants did not recognize the article as adver-
tising or mention the disclosure, and 50 participants misidentified the disclosure as
advertising.
Attitude Toward the Advertiser. Attitude toward the advertiser was measured using three
7-point semantic differential items preceded by the stem “Please rate your impression
of Citi using the scale below” and with labeled anchors designated Bad–Good, Favor-
able–Unfavorable, Pleasant–Unpleasant. The three items were assessed for internal
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10 American Behavioral Scientist
consistency (α = .977), and averaged to form a single measure of attitude toward the
ad, M = 4.79, SD = 1.46.
Article Credibility. Participants’ perceptions of the overall quality of the news arti-
cle were measured using five 7-point Likert-type items. Participants rated their
agreement with five statements (e.g., “I think the news story was trustworthy”) on
a scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” The items proved
internally consistent (α = .898) and were averaged to create a single measure, M = 5.75,
SD = 0.94.
Intent to Share the Article. Participants’ intention to share the article (also known as
electronic word-of-mouth) was measured using three 7-point Likert-type scale items.
Participants rated their agreement with three statements, “The news story has pass-
along value,” “I would recommend this news story to a friend,” and “I would recom-
mend this website to a friend.” The items proved internally consistent (α = .921) and
were averaged to create a single measure, M = 4.74, SD = 1.04.
Conceptual Persuasion Knowledge. After completing the ad recognition measure, con-
ceptual persuasion knowledge was measured using a three-item scale (Boerman et al.,
2012). Participants were asked to rate their agreement with three statements (e.g.,
“The article was commercial”) on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from “Strongly
Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” The three items were highly internally consistent (α =
.880) and were averaged to form a single measure of conceptual persuasion knowl-
edge, M = 3.67, SD = 1.58.
Perceived Deceptiveness. The extent to which participants thought the advertising
nature of the article was deceptive was measured using a three-item Likert-type scale
(Wojdynski, Evans, & Hoy, 2016). Participants rated their agreement with the state-
ments (e.g., “The advertiser tried to obscure the fact that this article was an ad.”) on a
7-point scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” The items were
internally consistent (α = .969) and averaged to form a single measure of perceived
deceptiveness, M = 3.88, SD = 1.69.
Results
Research Question 1 sought to examine the influence of disclosure position, disclosure
prominence, disclosure clarity, and logo presence on readers’ ability to correctly iden-
tify the article as paid advertising. To examine these effects, a stepwise binary logistic
recognition was conducted with all four independent variables entered as categorical
predictors in the first block, the control variables familiarity with native advertising
and time spent on story entered in the second block, and binary advertising recognition
as a covariate. The three-level positioning variable was dummy-coded, with top posi-
tioning serving as the referent category. The results showed that the four disclosure
characteristics combined successfully predicted about 6.6% (Nagelkerke R2) of the
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Wojdynski 11
variance in advertising recognition, χ2(5) = 13.97, p < .05, which increased to 8.4%
with the addition of the control variables, χ2(7) = 17.87, p < .05 (see Table 1).
The results of the logistic regression showed that two of the four disclosure charac-
teristics predicted advertising recognition. The presence of a sponsor logo was shown
to increase advertising recognition, B = 0.82, Wald = 7.13, p < .01, with 22.9% of
participants recognizing the article as advertising when a logo was present, compared
with 11.6% of participants when a logo was absent. Participants were also more likely
to recognize the article as advertising in the high-prominence condition (22.4%) than
in the low-prominence condition (12.4%), B = 0.71, Wald = 5.64, p < .05. There were
no significant main effects of disclosure position or wording on advertising recogni-
tion. Additionally, familiarity with native advertising was shown to significantly pre-
dict recognition of the article as advertising (B = 0.23, Wald = 3.88, p < .05), providing
support for Hypothesis 1.
To test Research Question 2, a second binary logistic regression was conducted to
assess whether disclosure characteristics affected the likelihood of misidentification.
The overall model successfully explained about 19.4% (Nagelkerke R2) of the vari-
ance in advertising recognition, χ2(5) = 39.71, p < .001. Participants were far more
likely to misidentify the label as display advertising when it included a logo (23.5%)
than when it did not (4.8%), B = 1.83, Wald = 19.87, p < .001. Proximity played a role
in misidentification; participants were more likely to misidentify the label as advertis-
ing when it was in embedded (22.7%) position than when it was in the top (7.9%), B
= −1.31, Wald = 9.21, p < .01. No other variables led to statistically significant effects
on likelihood of misidentification.
Hypotheses 2 and 3 predicted that readers who recognized the article as advertising
would report greater activation of persuasion knowledge and lower perceptions of
article quality, attitudes toward the sponsor, and intent to share the article, than those
who did not recognize it as advertising. These hypotheses were tested using a
MANOVA with advertising recognition as the predictor and perceived article quality
and credibility as the dependent measures. To provide greater detail about the phenom-
enon of misidentification, all three recognition groups were compared using post hoc
Table 1. Binary Logistic Regression for Recognition of the Article as Advertising.
Covariates Subgroups % Rec βSE (β) Wald df Sig eβ
Position Top (Ref) .385 2 .825
Right Rail .212 .363 .342 1 .559 1.236
Embedded .182 .370 .243 1 .622 1.200
Prominence High .652 .303 4.64 1 .031 1.919
Logo Yes .819 .307 7.13 1 .008 2.269
Wording Advertising .028 .294 .009 1 .923 1.029
N.A. Familiarity .228 .116 3.884 1 .049 1.256
Time on story .000 .001 .000 1 .990 1.000
Constant −3.059 .549 31.09 1 .000 .047
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12 American Behavioral Scientist
Figure 1. Serial mediation model of advertising recognition effects
Games–Howell tests, due to unequal variances resulting from uneven group size. The
results, shown in Table 2, showed that participants who recognized the article as
advertising differed from those who misidentified the disclosure label or otherwise
failed to recognize the article in the predicted directions for conceptual PK, article
quality, and intent to share, but there were no significant differences in attitude toward
the sponsor. Thus, Hypotheses 2, 3a, and 3b were supported, and Hypothesis 3c was
not supported.
Hypothesis 4 predicted serial mediation pathways between recognition of the arti-
cle as advertising and intent to share the article. To test these hypotheses, a linear
regression serial mediation analysis was conducted using the PROCESS macro in
SPSS (Hayes, 2012). For these analyses, recognition of the content as advertising was
treated a binary variable (60 yes, 283 no); cases of misidentification were categorized
as “no recognition.” The model included four sequential mediators of the relationship
between advertising recognition and intent to share the article, namely, conceptual PK
activation, perceived deception, article credibility, and attitude toward the sponsor.
The full model is shown in Figure 1, and regression coefficients predicting all five
outcome variables are shown in Table 3.
Table 2. Group Differences on Dependent Measures Based on Recognition.
Yes
(N = 60)
No
(N = 225)
Misidentification
(N = 49) FSig.
Conceptual PK 5.44a3.14b3.90b69.49 <.001
Perceived deception 4.90a3.62b3.67b13.81 <.001
Article credibility 4.69a5.50b5.67b17.39 <.001
Abrand 4.80 4.77 4.97 0.37 .689
eWOM 4.16a4.88b4.82b6.07 .003
Note: Mean comparisons are based on post hoc comparisons using the Games–Howell test for means
with unequal variances. Means that do not share a subscript are significant at the p <.05 level.
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Wojdynski 13
Bias-corrected bootstrapping of the data with 10,000 samples allowed the estab-
lishment of a confidence interval (CI) for the total indirect effect of advertising recog-
nition on intent to share the article, b = −0.626, SE = 0.19, 95% CI = −0.993 to −0.271.
The remaining direct effect of advertising recognition was not significant. Thus,
Hypothesis 4 was supported. Estimates of effect size for each of the 15 independent
pathways are shown in Table 4.
Discussion
This study contributes to the growing body of literature that suggests that a majority of
consumers of online native advertising may miss disclosure labels entirely, and thus fail
to recognize the content as paid advertising. In the present study, more than two thirds
(67.9%) of participants either reported that they saw no advertising on the page or believed
that there was some ambiguous display advertising that they could not remember. While
the primary problem appears to be lack of attention to the disclosure, the findings also
point out a potential pitfall of designing advertising disclosures to be noticed: some con-
sumers may interpret them as stand-alone display advertisements rather than a label refer-
ring to the article itself. Fifty participants (14.6%) failed to interpret the article as
advertising because they believed the disclosure label to be a display advertisement.
The results suggest that adding the sponsor’s logo to disclosures may be an effec-
tive way to get consumers to notice the disclosure. However, while disclosures with a
logo were most likely to lead to recognition of the content as an advertisement, they
Table 3. Regression Statistics for Serial Mediation Effects of Advertising Recognition on
Intent to Share.
Outcomes
CPK
Perceived
deceptiveness
Article
credibility
Attitude toward
sponsor
Intent to
share
R2.270 .293 .313 .176 .370
F123.05 68.70 50.01 17.52 53.33
df (1, 332) (2, 331) (3, 330) (4, 329) (5, 328)
p<.001 <.001 <.001 <.001 <.001
Beta weights of
predictors
Ad Recognition 2.16*** −.01 −.14 .57*** −.10
CPK .58*** −.23*** .01 .01
Perceived Dec. −.16*** −.12* −.08
Article Cred. .50*** .66***
Att. Sponsor .15**
Constant 3.28*** 1.77*** 6.88*** 2.46*** 0.77
Note: *** = p<.001, ** = p <.01 * = p <.05
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14 American Behavioral Scientist
Table 4. Indirect Effects of Relationship Between Advertising Recognition and Intent to
Share the Article.
95% CI
βSE LL UL
Recognition CPK Share .020 .126 −.235 .260
Recognition CPK Perc. Dec. Share −.094 .060 −.223 .015
Recognition CPK Art Cred. Share −.323 .076 −.502 −.195
Recognition CPK Att. Sponsor Share .003 .022 −.041 .051
Recognition CPK Perc. Dec. Art Cred.
Share
−.135 .038 −.230 −.076
Recognition CPK Perc. Dec. Att. Sponsor
Share
−.023 .015 −.066 −.003
Recognition CPK Art. Cred. Att. Sponsor
Share
−.036 .018 −.084 −.022
Recognition CPK Perc. Dec. Art. Cred.
Att. Sponsor Share
−.015 .007 −.036 −.005
Recognition Perc. Dec. Share .001 .022 −.048 .046
Recognition Perc. Dec. Art. Cred. Share .000 .028 −.060 .053
Recognition Perc. Dec. Att. Sponsor
Share
.000 .006 −.012 .012
Recognition Perc. Dec. Art. Cred. Att.
Sponsor Share
.000 .003 −.007 .006
Recognition Art. Cred. Share −.097 .110 −.325 .108
Recognition Art. Cred. Att. Sponsor
Share
−.011 .013 −.048 .009
Recognition Att. Sponsor Share .085 .043 .022 .198
Total indirect −.626 .184 −.993 −.272
Direct −.099 .195 −.482 .284
Note. CI = confidence interval; LL = lower limit; UL = upper limit.
were also the most likely to lead consumers to think that the disclosure was a display
ad for the sponsor, and did so to nearly equal degrees. Visual prominence, which here
was manipulated through the use of font size, weight, and contrast, also was shown to
increase recognition. Some prior research has pointed out that disclosures near the top
of the page can be more likely to be missed by readers than disclosures positioned
further down (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016), but this finding was not corroborated in the
present study.
The present study also illuminates the psychological processes through which rec-
ognition of sponsored articles as advertising influences consumers’ perceptions of the
article and the sponsor, and ultimately leads to decreased likelihood of sharing the
article. As a whole, the results suggest that increasing consumers’ ability to recognize
these articles as advertising leads to negative outcomes for the publisher (article
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Wojdynski 15
quality) and for the advertiser (attitudes toward the brand). However, the mediating
role of perceived deceptiveness in several of the pathways suggests that if advertisers
and publishers take efforts to minimize the degree to which sponsored articles are
deceptive, consumers’ negative reactions may be mitigated. A decrease in perceived
deceptiveness could come through several channels; consumers may grow accustomed
to native advertising over time and how to recognize it, or publishers may modify
disclosure techniques to make them harder to miss or misinterpret.
The study also found that advertising recognition did not lead to a significant total
effect on attitudes toward the sponsor. This may be shaped to do with the generally
positive role of the sponsor in the content of the article. However, it is also advertising
recognition still had an indirect negative influence on attitude toward the brand through
conceptual persuasion knowledge and perceived deceptiveness. Thus, brands still
have reason to be wary of engaging in sponsored content advertising.
Generalization of the study results to other examples of native advertising should
consider some limitations of the present study. A single news story was used as the
sample article, and it is possible that perceptions of the sponsoring brand in this story
led to a more narrow range of reactions than one would find across a body of varied
stories. Participants were also free to spend as much time with the story as they desired,
which led to a wide variety in exposure times to the story; other studies that set a mini-
mum exposure time or give participants more specific instructions may find higher
rates of recognition, although such constraints may make the reading experience less
reflective of real-world reading. Finally, while the manipulations of the disclosure
characteristics themselves served as one way of operationalizing the concepts men-
tioned in the FTC guidelines, it is possible that more extreme manipulations of promi-
nence or more descriptive wording could yield greater differences in advertising
recognition and, consequently, perceptions.
In sum, the findings of the study provide some validation for critics concerned that
sponsored news articles are deceptive. Fewer than one in five participants recognized
the article as advertising, and those who recognized it perceived it as highly deceptive.
The fact that perceived deceptiveness contributes to negative attitudes toward the
brand provides an incentive for publishers, advertising to make their native advertising
disclosures harder to miss, and harder to misinterpret. I hope that future research on
native disclosure design clarifies the need to understand how consumers perceive the
information they contain, and apply it to the story, and how advancements in disclo-
sure design can yield better attention and understanding.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
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16 American Behavioral Scientist
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Author Biography
Bartosz W. Wojdynski (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is an assistant
professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of
Georgia, where he directs the Digital Media, Attention, and Cognition Lab. His primary research
area is the study of psychological effects of digital message design variables on selection, atten-
tion, and cognition.
at UNIV OF GEORGIA LIBRARIES on July 28, 2016abs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... and purchase intention. Manipulations have primarily focused on the impacts of disclosure language and position (e.g., Campbell & Evans, 2018;Wojdynski & Evans, 2016), source perceptions (e.g., Howe & Teufel, 2014;Wu et al., 2016), and deception (e.g., Amazeen & Wojdynski, 2019;Wojdynski, 2016b). Consequently, as social media has become a staple in the marketing mix strategy, native ads on social media have gained more attention from industry practice and research. ...
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