Covert advertising messages: How fit are media consumers in recognizing and classifying content marketing measures?


Since traditional advertising is often being avoided, companies rely on inconspicuous forms of advertising. How do media consumers deal with such forms of advertising, where the promotional character is not immediately apparent, and how do they evaluate them?

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉

Are content marketing formats such as "native advertising" or "sponsored content" perceived as advertising and how are they evaluated? A new study conducted at the University of Vienna investigated the extent to which media consumers recognize and classify companies' content marketing activities. Using a qualitative method, 50 study participants of different gender, age and educational background were asked about various content marketing measures. As stimuli, they were shown four content marketing examples in text form and one journalistic article during the interviews. They were then asked to reflect on the texts and the intentions behind them; in addition, they rated their own media literacy. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and finally analyzed. Which message characteristics media consumers used to recognize advertising messages and which types of content marketing consumers were identified will be explained in the following.

Am I reading an informative article or is this covert advertising? Persuasive messages in traditional advertising formats are easily recognized by most media users and can be bypassed in simple ways – for example, by using an adblocker. Nowadays, companies are working with creative content marketing techniques to inform consumers about products and services in a less intrusive way and to persuade them to purchase. "This includes sponsored content and native advertising, that looks like the media environment in which it is embedded", study-co-author Sabine Einwiller explains. Some companies also produce their own media products (such as customer magazines) to address their target groups.

As content marketing texts are usually designed in such a way that they are difficult to distinguish from journalistic articles, they are also referred to as 'hybrid content'. "The problematic issue is that such hybrid content isn't as easily recognized as promotion by media users as traditional advertising. Thus, they may read a native ad and think it is independent journalistic content, while it aims to create interest for or enhance the image of a product or company" according to Einwiller. 

The study captured 50 perspectives and reactions to content marketing

In this study, Lina Stürmer and Sabine Einwiller from the University of Vienna investigated the perspectives and reactions of 50 media users with the help of qualitative interviews conducted between May and June 2019. After stating their general media usage, all interviewees were presented with five content marketing examples and asked to describe the content and to reflect on the intentions behind it. They were also asked how critically they viewed media and whether they were familiar with content marketing. The recorded and transcribed responses were analyzed using MAXQDA data analysis software.

Advertising disclosure labels are less significant when identifying advertising

Concerning the question "how well can media consumers recognize the commercial character of a text", it was not so much a question of whether the text contained an advertising disclosure label, but in what way it conveyed its message. When the content marketing example contained a noticeable sales intention, a brand reference or when it was one-sided, the participants found it easier to classify the text as advertising. While many participants – especially the younger ones – were able to classify sponsored posts on social media, such as a Facebook ad, as promotional right away, it was much more difficult to recognize the promotional character in the case of native advertising and a sponsored media supplement. The labeling as "advertising" was not immediately apparent to most, but if so, only on closer inspection. Even in the case of the company's own medium, a customer magazine, the advertising nature was not recognized immediately, but was usually only identified by the brand logo or imprint.

Higher media literacy is essential

If respondents assessed their own media literacy as high or at least moderate, they were considerably better at recognizing a commercial intent compared to respondents who assessed themselves as having a low level of media literacy. Hence, a certain level of media literacy appears to be important for perceiving hybrid forms of content as advertising. However, many of the participants did not automatically classify content marketing as advertising, even when they correctly identified the source of the content: "This suggests that many people still hold a rather narrow definition of advertising", Einwiller comments. For many to be considered advertising, the design must be flashy with eye-catching images, minimal information, and persuasive messages.

Four types of content marketing consumers

The study authors were able to identify four types of content marketing consumers from the interviews, which can be distinguished by how accepting or critical they are of content marketing measures and whether they adopt a more passive or active stance in this regard. The group of "neutrals" are characterized by their basic acceptance of hybrid content, even if it is intended to convince them to buy a product or service. For them, it is only important that the content is interesting. The so-called "contemplators" have a critical attitude, but they do not actively put it forward. They reflect on the purpose of the content marketing text and its credibility to not be unintentionally influenced by it. The third type, the "critics", are not only critical of the hybrid content due to the covert persuasion tactics applied, but they also actively demand more transparency. They even find this type of advertising more disturbing than traditional forms of advertising. Finally, the opposite type are the "enthusiasts" who actively accept these forms of advertising and even prefer them to traditional advertising formats. They also accept the integration of content marketing into journalistic media, as this provides media with a source of income.

Solution: Clearly identifiable advertising disclosure labels and more media education

The study provides insight into media consumers' reception of content marketing texts. Study co-author Sabine Einwiller explains what the results mean for practice: "The research suggests that advertising disclosure labels required by media law in many countries are not as effective as intended by policymakers, and it clearly reveals the necessity for more media education, so media consumers learn to better identify promotional content."

Publication details

Stürmer, L., & Einwiller, S. (2022). Is this advertising or not, and do I care? Perceptions of and opinions regarding hybrid forms of content. Journal of Marketing Communications. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/13527266.2022.2154065

Lina Stürmer was a Predoctoral Researcher at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna until October 2022. (Image © Lina Stürmer)


Sabine Einwiller is Professor of Public Relations Research and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. (Image © Sabine Einwiller)