This blog is based on the original journal article in the Public Relations Journal.

Do Public Relations students know advertising when they see it? Borrowing the credibility of a content publisher, native advertising is paid content mirroring the source content in form and location. Native advertising includes paid posts, sponsored hyperlinks, and content developed to mimic the online media platform (Woidynski & Golan, 2016). To gain a better understanding of Civic Online Reasoning among students, the Stanford History Education Group (2016), conducted an extensive study. Although students could distinguish between the traditional ad and the news story, more than 80% of the respondents failed to recognize native advertising articles labeled “sponsored content” (SHEG, 2016). For this study, the authors replicated the SHEG study with over 700 PRSSA members testing their ability to differentiate between editorial and advertising content.

Given the extent of online information, it is important for college students to be able to distinguish the validity of the content and source. Without a doubt, these “digital natives” are at ease online. Likely, they can simultaneously surf social networking sites, text their friends, and take a selfie. However, it is unclear if students can accurately evaluate the information they consume. With traditional news, consumers typically trust that the information has been vetted. However, information and disinformation are easily spread on the internet. Without the same level of factual and editorial scrutiny, it is unclear whether the plethora of online information produces better educated or more narrow-minded users.

Although researchers have investigated consumer attitudes toward brands that sponsor native advertising (Wu et al., 2016; Brusse, Fransen & Smit, 2015; Ashley & Leonard, 2009), as well as attitudes toward media that include native advertising (Wang & Huang, 2017; Wu et al., 2016; Van Reijmersdal et al., 2015), it remains unclear if media consumers are aware that native content is paid, persuasive communication. There is little research that investigates students’ understanding of native advertising. In fact, Holtzhauzen, Fullerton, Lewis, and Shipka (2021), posited that the lack of information on native advertising in introduction textbooks is a problem. Thus, this study builds on previous research on native advertising recognition by asking the following questions:
1.) Do PR students correctly identify banner ads?
2.) Do PR students recognize that a bylined article isn’t advertising?
3.) Do PR students identify a “sponsored content” story as an advertisement?
4.) How do advertising and PR students compare in recognition of online ads?

Findings revealed that of the PR student respondents (n=727), 96 percent correctly identified a banner advertisement and 83 percent recognized a bylined article as non-advertising. However, only 64 percent recognized a story with a “sponsored content” disclosure as advertising. Results are similar for advertising students (Kendrick and Fullerton, 2019). The good news is that a large majority of students correctly separated native advertising from editorial content.

One of the ethical implications associated with the use of native advertising is that if the audience does not identify it as paid content, it will likely fail to activate their persuasion knowledge, a phenomenon that is widely viewed as necessary for effective consumer information-gathering, evaluation, and decision-making. It is important that future practitioners understand the voice they provide their clients as content creators. It is equally important that they be able to identify and understand the potential impact of native advertising.

Lori Melton McKinnon, Ph.D., APR, Oklahoma State University

Jami A. Fullerton, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University 

Alice Kendrick, Ph.D., Southern Methodist University

Ashley, C., and Leonard, H. A. (2009). Betrayed by the buzz? Covert content and consumer-brand relationships. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 28(2), 212-220.
Brusse, E. D., Fransen, M. L., & Smit, M. L. (2015). Framing in entertainment-education: Effects on processes of narrative persuasion. Health Communication 32(12), 1501-1509.
Kendrick, A. & Fullerton, J. (2019). Can US advertising students recognize an ad in editorial clothing (native advertising)? A partial replication of the Stanford “Evaluating information” test.  Journal of Marketing Communications. DOI: 10.1080/13527266.2019.1655086
Holtzhauzen, D., Fullerton, J. A., Lewis, B. K., & Shipka, D. (2021). Principles of Strategic Communication. New York: Routledge.
Van Reijmersdal, E. A., Lammers, N., Rozendaal, E., & Buijzen, M. (2015). Disclosing the persuasive nature of advergames: moderation effects of mood on brand responses via persuasion knowledge. International Journal of Advertising,34(1), 70-84.
Wang, R. & Huang, Y. (2017). Going native on social media: the effects of social media characteristics on native ad effectiveness. Journal of Interactive Advertising (May 4).  Retrieved from
Wojdynski, B.W. & Golan, G.J. (2016), “Native advertising and the future of mass communications,” American Behavioral Scientist, 60(12), 1403-1407.
Wu, M., Huang, Y., Li, R., Bortree, S., Yang, F., Xiao, A. & Wang, R. (2016). A tale of two sources in native advertising: Examining the effects of source credibility and priming on content, organizations, and media evaluations. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(12). 1492-1509.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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