A new study published in the journal Communication Research shows that specific communication tactics used in advertorials are very persuasive. But why they are more effective than traditional advertisements?

The investigation, which looked specifically at health advertorials, showed that advertorials, or “native advertisements” are actually far more persuasive than even ad agencies thought they were.

Advertorials, or advertisements camouflaged as credible news, succeed in misleading people, in part, by damping down skepticism and expectations for truth in advertising. The study was undertaken at Dartmouth College-Stanford University.

The fact that advertorials are so successful has led to complaints, and then a crackdown. Over in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission last December issued guidelines on native advertising intended to prevent customers from being deceived. The guidelines suggest using a clear label of “advertisement” and placing disclosures in front of or above the headline. So, while the Americans are having a meltdown, the rest of the world is wondering whether their own governments will meddle with advertising rules.

Advertorials are not new. Infomercials and other “blurring practices” between editorials and advertising first appeared as early as the late 1940s in television and print media, and the volume and revenue of blurring practices of advertising are increasing. But until now it was it not clear how advertorials create favourable marketing environments for advertisers, and how readers process advertorials.

The Dartmouth-Stanford study found that advertorials were less likely to trigger consumer awareness of persuasive intent, especially when the “advertisement” label was not present.

“Unlabelled advertorials, compared to labelled advertorials and regular advertisements, were less likely to trigger consumer awareness of persuasive intent, and increased favourable attitudes toward advertising messages and purchase intention,” says lead author Sunny Jung Kim. “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.”

Participants in their experiments exhibited more positive attitudes toward advertorials than they did toward traditional advertisements due to advertorials’ unique structure, which, in turn, increased their willingness to purchase advertised products.

“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.”

Kim adds: “Until now, there has been no empirical evidence that has tested the core elements of persuasion tactics in advertorials, namely their unique structure and labelling and its impact on information processing. These advertising tactics are pervasive across various forms of media, from newspapers and magazines to social media. Our findings have broad implications for health researchers, advertisers and consumers.”

For those of us that think that advertorial is a perfectly viable way for advertisers to reach their target markets? Rock on, while we can. At least we know it works.