Do consumers really understand “native advertising” labeling?

There’s no question that “native advertising” – paid editorial content – has become a popular “go-to” marketing tactic. After all, it’s based on the time-tested notion that people don’t like advertising, and they’re more likely to pay attention to information that looks more like a news article than an ad.

Back in the days of print-only media, paid editorial placements were often labeled as “advertorials.” But these days we’re seeing a plethora of ways to label them – whether identified as “sponsored content,” “paid posts,” or using some kind of lead-in descriptor such as “presented by …”

Behind all of the verbal gymnastics is the notion that people may not easily distinguish native advertising from true editorial if the identification can be kept somewhat euphemistic. At the same time, the verbal “sleight of hand” raises concerns about the obfuscation that seems to be going on.

These dynamics have been tested. One such test, conducted several years ago by ad tech company TripleLift, used biometric eye-tracking to see how people would view the same piece of native advertising, that carries different disclosure labeling.

The results were revealing. Here are the percentages of participants who saw each ad, based on how the content was labeled:

  • Presented by” labeling: ~39% saw the content
  • “Sponsored by” labeling: ~29%
  • “Promoted by” labeling: ~26%
  • “Brought to you by” labeling: ~24%
  • “Advertisement” labeling: ~23%

Notice that the content that was labeled “advertisement” was noticed the least often. This provides yet more confirmation that people ignore ads.  When advertisers used softer/fuzzier terms like “presented by” and “sponsored by,” they achieved a bigger lift in the content being noticed.

It comes as little surprise that those same “presented by” and “sponsored by” labels are also the most potentially confusing to people regarding whether the item is paid content. And when people find out the truth, they tend to feel deceived.

Members of the Association of National Advertisers look at it the same way. In an ANA survey of its members conducted several years ago, two-thirds of the respondents agreed that there should be “clear disclosure” of native ads – even if there’s a lack of consensus regarding who should be responsible for the labeling or what constitutes “clear” disclosure.

Asked which labeling describes native ad disclosure “very well,” here’s what the ANA survey found:

  • “Advertisement”: 62% say this labeling describes native ad placements “very well”
  • “Paid content”: 37%
  • “Paid posts”: 34%
  • “Sponsored by”: 31%
  • “Native advertising”: 12%
  • “Presented by”: 11%
  • “Promoted by”: 11%
  • “Branded content”: 8%
  • “Featured partner”: 8%

Considering that the findings are all over the map, it would be nice if a universal method of disclosure could be devised. But the language that’s agreed upon shouldn’t scare away readers, since in so many cases native advertising isn’t directly pitching a product or service.  Labeling such content “advertising” would be as much of a misnomer as failing to divulge the company paying for the placement.

My personal preference for adopting consistent labeling language among the options above would be “Sponsored by …”  What’s yours?

2 thoughts on “Do consumers really understand “native advertising” labeling?

  1. “Sponsored by….” sounds about right.

    Advertising always has to walk a fine line between “You’re an idiot, and we need to trick you …” and “You’re ignorant, and you need to know this …”

    Almost all advertising, in other words, is essentially insulting. Product promotion is necessary to make the wheels go round, to inform people that something helpful to them even exists, But it’s also an intrusion. If advertising merely represented information, consumers would look to an almanac. Almanacs don’t play games of one-upmanship. Advertisers do.

    So do it nicely. Distract us with humor, if you must. But don’t twist language to make us hate you.

  2. “Paid content” is the most truthful label for native advertising, in my opinion, even though it’s a little less forgiving than “sponsored by” from the advertiser’s point of view..

    “Sponsored by” is a broader disclosure which includes not only paid editorial content, but also advertising not incorporated into the content, as in “Days of Our Lives is sponsored by Ivory Soap” — unless, of course, Ivory Soap props are on prominent display, in which case we’re talking about “product placement” (a.k.a. “embedded marketing”).

    Call me a cynic, but news, opinion and entertainment content freely created without advertiser influence is so rare these days that most everything passed off as objective, artistic or competitive in the media ought by rights to be labeled “paid content” or “embedded marketing.”

    It’s the price we consumers pay for our increasing unwillingness to compensate authors, artistes and sportsmen (sportspersons??) directly for their efforts.

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