Brands using native ads to spread the word about their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts need to make sure they avoid a focus on promotional messaging, a study in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR) has found.

Linwan Wu and Holly Overton, both from the University of South Carolina, discussed this topic in a paper entitled, Is native advertising effective for corporate social responsibility messaging? How advertising recognition affects consumer responses to proactive versus reactive CSR.

One piece of advice they had for marketers creating native CSR-related ads was that developing content “that is informational rather than promotional may be crucial for building an effective CSR advertisement.

“If a call to action is included,” the study continued, “CSR communicators may opt to focus on calls that benefit society, not the company” to minimise negative effects.

“This approach may offer the appropriate balance that is necessary to communicate about CSR activities without creating perceptions of manipulativeness among consumers,” the study said.

In reaching that conclusion, the study addressed two forms of native CSR ads. One was reactive messaging, where a firm engages in this type of CSR communications to protect its reputation after information has spread regarding its irresponsible actions.

The other involved proactive messaging, where companies highlight their CSR efforts without needing a crisis as a prompt, with the potential benefit of being associated with a “values-driven motivation,” the study said.

A panel of 263 respondents took part in the main study, with 133 members exposed to a mocked-up news article and native ad about a fictitious bank making proactive efforts to help disadvantaged communities.

Another 130 consumers were exposed to an altered news story and native ad that featured the same fictional bank, but with detailed reactive attempts to support disadvantaged groups.

When consumers realised the “paid nature” of native ads linked to CSR, their responses did “not differ by CSR motivation – genuinely doing good versus repairing a damaged reputation,” the study found.

Put another way, consumers care about the motivation behind CSR programmes in native communications “only when they do not recognize the messages as advertisements”.

As native advertising can exist in an ambiguous middle ground for consumers, the wrong approach can lead to negative outcomes with consumers.

“With the blurred lines between paid and earned media, native CSR advertisements can run the risk of being seen as too promotional, manipulative, or even unethical,” the study warned.

Sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by WARC staff