Consumers are overwhelmed with advertisement on many different moments and at many different places such as on the streets, in the bus, in shops, on radio and television and when using internet. Consumers also become better in identifying and ignoring these advertisements (Petty & Andrews, 2008). As a response, marketers come up with new methods that are not easily identified as persuasive marketing messages (Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004). Marketers use communication methods to get around the resistance of consumers because messages that do not come from commercial sources are accepted more by consumers (Darke & Ritchie, 2007). Research shows that companies advertise more and more through blogs to reach potential customers (Hsu & Lin, 2008). Blogs are not immediately recognized by consumers as communication tools that can contain persuasive messages. Sponsoring on blogs offers a new opportunity for marketers to promote their brand. Sponsored blog posts are an effective marketing tool because they are perceived by consumers as more credible than traditional marketing tools such as radio or television commercials (Akehurst, 2009; Johnson & Kaye, 2004).
Since blogs are consumer-generated and perceived as a credible source by other consumers, the persuasive intent of the sponsored content is not obvious. Consumers only recognize persuasive messages if the sponsored content in the message is clear. According to the theory of persuasion knowledge, individuals learn about persuasion and how to cope with persuasion attempts over time (Friestad & Wright, 1994). Previous studies suggest that if blog posts do not reveal that they are sponsored, then persuasion knowledge will not be activated and consumers may process the persuasive message less critically than a persuasive message in traditional advertising, where the persuasive intent is recognized. This could lead to persuasion without consumers being aware of it (Bambauer-Sachse & Mangold, 2013; Nebenzahl & Jaffe, 1998). A sponsorship disclosure makes consumers aware of the sponsored content in a blog post. A sponsorship disclosure informs the audience when commercial intent is integrated in the editorial content to guarantee fair communication and avoid persuasion without the audience being aware of it (Cain, 2011; Woods, 2008). The primary goal of a sponsorship disclosure is to inform consumers about an advertisement and its persuasive content.
There is a knowledge gap in the existing literature about what the effects are of sponsorship disclosures in blog posts on the activation of persuasion knowledge and on the evaluation of a brand. This study investigates if blogs that reveal being sponsored will be evaluated more critically and if this leads to a less positive brand evaluation. In addition, different positions of sponsorship disclosures in blogs will be studied to see if this also affects the reader's processing of sponsored content and evaluations of the brand. It is possible that consumers react differently on a sponsorship disclosure when this disclosure is placed before or concurrent with the sponsored content or several times in a blog post.
Next to this, previous studies on the possible effects of sponsorship disclosures on brand evaluation show contradictory results. These results seem to indicate that a brand is evaluated more negatively only in certain situations when consumers can resist the persuasive content and activate persuasion knowledge. Activating persuasion knowledge requires cognitive abilities of consumers. This means that in order to resist persuasion attempts such as sponsored blog content, readers should have enough cognitive capacities to protect themselves against and resist persuasion attempts. Therefore, this study will also focus on if consumers evaluate a brand differently under varying circumstances. If consumers do not have enough cognitive abilities to activate persuasion knowledge it is possible that they will evaluate a brand differently than consumers who have enough cognitive abilities to activate persuasion knowledge. Previous studies did not link the influence of sponsorship disclosures and the cognitive abilities of consumers to see what the effects are of sponsorship disclosures in blog posts. However, it is relevant to study the potentially different outcomes of sponsorship disclosures under varying circumstances since it can have implications for brands and legislators.
In the following sections, the concepts of sponsored content and sponsorship disclosures are discussed first. After this, an explanation of persuasion knowledge and the effects of activation of persuasion knowledge are given. This is followed by a discussion of the moderating role of self-control and the research question and hypotheses. After this, the method, results, conclusion and implications of this study are discussed.
Sponsored content in blogs and regulations
Consumers are every day confronted with more advertisements than they can process (Petty & Andrews, 2008). To defend themselves against these messages, consumers put up defences when they have the feeling someone tries to persuade them or sell something to them (Kaikati & Kaikati, 2004). Therefore, advertisers need to find other ways than advertising in traditional media to persuade consumers or to sell their products (Xie, Boush & Liu, 2015). In order to reach consumers, brands, products and persuasive messages are more and more integrated into for example, editorial content on television, but also in other media (Cain, 2011; Van Reijmersdal, Neijens & Smit, 2007). This is called sponsored content and this can be implemented in different ways. An example is brand placement, in which a product, service or brand is placed or mentioned in a program or on a blog (Hudson & Hudson, 2006). An example of brand placement is a blog post that shows the blogger's weekly activities and the suitcase of Samsonite she used when visiting a friend for two days. In this case, Samsonite sponsored this blog post and paid the blog owner to write about this suitcase. Integrating brands in editorial content is a form of covert advertising (Tomažic, Boras, Jurišic & Lesjak, 2014).
Marketers can use several techniques to spread a persuasive message online. An example of covert advertising that can be used online is placing content in a blog post (Ferguson, 2008). A blog, derived of the term ‘weblog', is a website of a person on which he or she can publish ideas, opinions and other information. Everyone in the world has access to a blog and can respond to a blog (Smudde, 2005). Also other kinds of blogs exist, such as corporate blogs created by a company (Smudde, 2005). In the present study will be focused on personal blogs.
A blogger can post personal experiences about products or services and these experiences are available to other consumers. Johnson and Kaye (2004) explored to what degree blog users and consumers perceive blogs as credible compared to traditional media such as radio and television and other online sources such as online newspapers and news sites. Credibility was defined as the believability, fairness, accuracy and depth of the content of the medium. The researchers noticed that blogs are viewed as moderately to very credible and blogs provide more depth and thoughtful analyses than traditional media such as radio and television and online sources such as online newspapers and news sites. Blogs are also perceived as a new and better form of journalism (Johnson & Kaye, 2004). Akehurst (2009) emphasized that consumers also have more confidence in this form of communication in comparison with traditional media. Recommendations in a blog post about a company, product or service can therefore be very valuable for a company. If consumers search for information, they can be influenced by a blogger in the consideration and decision to buy a certain product (Hsu, Lin & Chiang, 2013). This study show that blogs have the advantage of increased credibility and acceptance by consumers compared to messages that are sent by a brand, which makes consumers more susceptible to the messages. This makes sponsoring content in blogs a convenient form of advertising for companies and brands.
On a blog, two types of information about a brand can appear: blog advertising or blog sponsoring (Amstrong, 2006; Jarvis, 2006). Blog advertising is advertising about a brand that appears on the blog separately from the blog posts. An example of this are banners. This type of information is created by companies and is seen by consumers as advertising. Blog sponsoring is the case when a blog post contains information about a brand and the blog post is written by the blogger. An example of blog sponsoring is a blog post in which is shown how to make a certain dish and in this post a specific stove is mentioned. Companies can sponsor bloggers in different ways; pay them, give a discount or offer a product for free (Armstrong, 2006; Jarvis, 2006).
Sponsoring content in blogs is a convenient form of advertising for companies, but this is not the case for consumers since they are not always aware of the sponsored content when reading a blog post. However, consumers should be made aware of the sponsored content, but sometimes it is difficult to recognize the sponsorship type because blog posts does not always reveal if or how they are sponsored (Lu, Chang & Chang, 2014). If readers are not aware of the persuasive content, they cannot protect themselves towards this persuasive content and can be influenced without being aware (Kuhn, Hume & Love, 2010). This is seen as a violation of the right of consumers to know when an advertisement is shown to them (Lee, 2008). Therefore, criticism about sponsored content that is not identifiable has resulted in regulations about sponsorship disclosures (Kuhn et al., 2010). The European Audiovisual and Media Policies (Audiovisual and Media Policies, 2012) and the Dutch Advertising code Social Media (Reclamecode Social Media, n.d.) provide a framework with regulations to guarantee conditions of fair competition. Sponsored content should be mentioned by a disclosure stating that the content of the program or a website contains advertising (Audiovisual and Media Policies, 2012), such as: ‘this program contains product placement' or ‘this is a sponsored article'.
To make consumers aware of the sponsored content of a program or blog post, a sponsorship disclosure should be added. The primary goal of a sponsorship disclosure is to inform consumers about an advertisement and its persuasive content. A blogger has to indicate that a blog post or certain content is sponsored. However, there are, contrary to traditional media, no EU regulations that specify how sponsored content in a blog post should be indicated (Meindersma, 2015).
Sponsorship disclosures and activation of persuasion knowledge
By including a sponsorship disclosure, consumers are made aware of the persuasive content of a message and assisted in understanding the advertising and resisting the advertising (Cain, 2011). Research by Boerman, van Reijmersdal and Neijens (2012a) showed that a sponsorship disclosure on television leads to recognition of advertising. The consumers saw the message as a persuasion attempt and this caused the consumers to evaluate the information more critically. If consumers see a sponsorship disclosure, they will be more likely to resist the persuasion intent and have a less positive attitude toward the brand (Boerman et al., 2012a).
Consumers learn how to deal with persuasion attempt of marketers during their life. Friestad and Wright (1994) explain that over time consumers develop personal knowledge about the tactics that marketers use in their persuasion attempts. This knowledge helps consumers to identify where, when and how they are being influenced. This knowledge is called persuasion knowledge. Persuasion knowledge helps consumers respond to persuasion attempts. Consumers only use their persuasion knowledge when they are aware of the fact that a message contains persuasive intent (Nebenzahl & Jaffe, 1998). A sponsorship disclosure indicates persuasive intent in a message and can activate persuasion knowledge.
There are two types of persuasion knowledge (Rozendaal, Lapierre, Van Reijmersdal & Buijzen, 2011). A cognitive dimension of persuasion knowledge, conceptual persuasion knowledge, and an affective dimension of persuasion knowledge, attitudinal persuasion knowledge. Conceptual persuasion knowledge includes the recognition of the persuasive intent of a message, the recognition of the source and the underlying persuasive intent of marketers (Boerman, Van Reijmersdal and Neijens, 2012b). This is the first type of persuasion knowledge. The second type of persuasion knowledge is attitudinal persuasion knowledge (Boerman et al., 2012b). If attitudinal persuasion knowledge is activated, consumers become more critical towards content that contains persuasive messages. Consumers also may dislike the content more (Rozendaal et al., 2011).
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