Advertorials are ads made to look like news stories, and a study finds that they are often successful in misleading consumers about important health topics.
The Dartmouth-Stanford study found that because they look like credible news stories, advertorials "tamp down" the skepticism that readers normally bring to advertising.
The study, which appears in the journal Communication Research, is the first to systemically examine whether specific communication tactics used in advertorials are persuasive and, if so, why they are more effective than traditional advertisements.
"Unlabeled advertorials, compared to labeled advertorials and regular advertisements, were less likely to trigger consumer awareness of persuasive intent, and increased favorable attitudes toward advertising messages and purchase intention," says lead author Sunny Jung Kim, an e-health communication researcher at Dartmouth. "Because of their design and structure, advertorials tend to sway readers into believing that they are viewing credible information in the form of an editorial or news source."
The Federal Trade Commission last year issued guidelines on advertorials, also known as native advertising. The guidelines suggest using a clear label of "advertisement" and placing disclosures in front of or above the headline. These two guidelines were empirically examined in the Dartmouth-Stanford study.
The researchers examined the cognitive processes and persuasive effects of health product-related advertorials on more than 670 people. They found that advertorials were less likely to trigger consumer awareness of persuasive intent, especially when the "advertisement" label was not present.
Advertorials appeared as early as the late 1940s in television and print media and have been increasing lately as the internet increases the competition for consumers' time and attention.
"This form of advertising appears to be on the rise as advertisers try to embed their ads in the stories we read and the photos we see in almost every platform of social media," said co-author Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford University. "Understanding how these advertorials operate cognitively can improve guidelines for the prevention of misleading or confusing consumers."