Effects of Sponsorship Disclosure on Persuasion Knowledge and Electronic Word of Mouth in the Context of Facebook
They are everywhere. We all have seen one: a post on Facebook, Instagram or any other social media platform with a little sign saying that the post is sponsored. We see a celebrity enjoying a certain product and recommending it to the audience. We think to ourselves if the person in question is genuine in his or her motives of sharing it, whether they are actually using the product or whether we should follow their recommendation to purchase it ourselves and possibly share our newly found trophy with our family and friends. This simple everyday ritual we have with ourselves, sometimes multiple times a day, has prominent psychological mechanisms coming into play, guiding us through the journey starting from the recognition of the post as sponsored to eventually activating us to share it with our loved ones.
These psychological mechanisms lay the foundation of the research conducted by Boerman, Willemsen and Van der Aa (2017). The researchers identify the source of the sponsored post(brand or celebrity) as the initial step to recognizing it as carrying persuasive, or in other words, advertising value by consumers. This is defined as the activation of the conceptual persuasion knowledge, which in turn, activates the attitudinal persuasion knowledge. Attitudinal PK gets activated when consumers start developing critical and distrusting feelings towards the advertisement (Boerman, Van Reijmersdal and Neijens 2012). All these are used as determinants to find out whether the consumers eventually engage in electronic word of mouth (eWOM; cf., Berger 2014).
Designing the experiment
Building on the theoretical foundations mentioned above, researchers conduct an online experiment with 409 participants. A post with David Beckham drinking an Illy branded cup of coffee with the text ‘Starting the day with a nice cup of coffee!’ (posted by David Beckham) and ‘David Beckham starts his day with a nice cup of coffee!’ (posted by the brand) is shown to participants to test the following hypotheses by having participants answer a series of questions:
H1. A Facebook ad that is accompanied by a sponsorship disclosure (‘Sponsored’) will be more likely to activate consumers’ conceptual persuasion knowledge, than a Facebook ad without a sponsorship disclosure.
H2. A Facebook ad that is posted by a celebrity will be less likely to activate conceptual persuasion knowledge, than a Facebook ad that is posted by a brand.
H3. The effects of a sponsorship disclosure on the use of conceptual persuasion knowledge are stronger when a Facebook ad is posted by a celebrity compared to when a Facebook ad is posted by a brand.
H4. Source moderates the effect of the sponsorship disclosure on attitudinal persuasion knowledge through the activation of conceptual persuasion knowledge: The mediated relationship of the disclosure on attitudinal persuasion knowledge will be stronger when the Facebook ad is posted by a celebrity (vs. a brand).
H5. When a Facebook ad is posted by a celebrity, a sponsorship disclosure activates conceptual persuasion knowledge, which results in the use of attitudinal persuasion knowledge and ultimately lowers eWOM. When a Facebook ad is posted by a brand, such serial mediation is less likely to occur.
The figure below clearly outlines the experiment design and the source of the Facebook post as the initial stimulus.
In line with the expectations, researchers found evidence to support all five hypotheses. They found that the conceptual and attitudinal PK activation was significantly different when the source of the post was a celebrity in the presence of a sponsorship disclosure. This was not the case when the ad was posted on Facebook by the brand. Activation of the attitudinal PK after recognizing the post as an ad resulted in consumers engaging less in eWOM as a result of the distrusting feelings they developed by recognizing the post as advertising. An interesting finding of the study, however, indicates that little attention is paid to the sponsorship disclosures. The study shows that 59% of the participants did not recognize the sponsorship disclosure which is also in line with previous studies conducted (e.g., Boerman, Van Reijmersdal, and Neijens 2012; Campbell, Mohr, and Verlegh 2013; Wojdynski and Evans 2016). Intuitively, this has an impact on the interpretation of the results. Even though the activation of the conceptual and attitudinal persuasion knowledge of the consumers will result in less engagement, lowering the perceived success of the ad, this does not directly condemn sponsored celebrity Facebook posts to failure since the majority of the people won’t recognize the post as an ad.
Leveling the playing field
Although the study comes with its limitations due to its single product, brand (Illy coffee), celebrity (David Beckham) and geographical (conducted in the Netherlands) focus, it provides invaluable insights into the effect of sponsorship disclosures on Facebook posts. It seems the regulators’, such as FTC’s, disclosure requirements are not sufficient enough to level the playing field for consumers when it comes to social media advertising. Further research might reveal, however, how this could be overcome as well as consumers moving along the learning curve might become more aware themselves. Until then, better to think twice before you share that post by your favorite celebrity you saw on your newsfeed.
Berger, Jonah (2014), “Word of Mouth and Interpersonal Communication: A Review and Directions for Future Research,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 4, 586–607.
Boerman, Sophie C., Eva A. Van Reijmersdal, and Peter C. Neijens (2012),“Sponsorship Disclosure: Effects of Duration on Persuasion Knowledge and Brand Responses,” Journal of Communication, 62, 6, 1047–64.
Boerman, S., Willemsen, L. and Van Der Aa, E. (2017). “This Post Is Sponsored” Effects of Sponsorship Disclosure on Persuasion Knowledge and Electronic Word of Mouth in the Context of Facebook. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 38, 82-92.
Campbell, M., Mohr, G. and Verlegh, P. (2013). Can disclosures lead consumers to resist covert persuasion? The important roles of disclosure timing and type of response. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23(4), pp.483-495.
Wojdynski, Bartosz W. and Nathaniel J. Evans (2016), “Going Native: Effects of Disclosure Position and Language on the Recognition and Evaluation of Online Native Advertising,” Journal of Advertising, 45, 2, 157–68.