We say we don't trust sponsored content. But, oh, how we click on it

By James Robinson , written on July 9, 2014

From The News Desk

Today, Contently published a survey of 542 Americans between the ages of 18-65, polling them on their feelings toward sponsored content.

The feeling was overwhelmingly negative. Two-thirds of the people Contently spoke to said that they'd felt deceived by sponsored content, 59 percent felt that it affected a news site' credibility and 54 percent said they didn't trust it.

Noses turned up further toward the idea of sponsored content, the higher our education level is. Two-thirds of people with a graduate degree said that they preferred banner ads.

Slightly humorously, sponsored content still polled higher than Fox News.

The results are interesting and easy to cling to as a life raft of unease for people who are not happy with the direction that the new media economy is going in. Tellingly, there was no conclusive agreement between those surveyed about what sponsored content actually was. Roughly half thought a sponsor paid for and influenced the article, some thought it was written by the news site but paid for by the brand, others thought a company had just paid for their name to appear by the article, others felt like the article had been written by the sponsor themselves.

In some ways, this confusion is likely a function of jargon overload. Native advertising, advertorial, sponsored content. We're coming up with a lot of words for the same things, which doesn't help. It's definitely an indication that there needs to be more transparency to readers in how sponsored content comes across.

But it's also a sign that we don't quite get the issues facing publishers in the new media economy. Fifty-seven percent of people said that they'd prefer banner ads to sponsored content. But banner ads have proven to be forever disappointing, low on return for advertisers, returning cents on the dollar to publishers in comparison with print revenue.

Above all though, we may talk smack about sponsored content, but we still read it. There's an element to Contently's survey, where when asked a set of questions, not tied to a specific example, about something that is generally talked about as a negative thing... well, of course the results aren't positive.

In May, we reported on comments from the New York Times’ executive vice president of advertising Meredith Levien, that as many people were reading its sponsored content as its editorial, in some cases more.

Contently's results are a slap on the hand for publishers and advertisers. But there's also the strong possibility that what we say in public and what really happens between us and our computer might not actually match up.