Research in Progress: CSR communication as native advertising

October 29, 2018

Linwan Wu and Holly Overton

By Linwan Wu and Holly Overton, University of South Carolina

Native advertising, a buzzword in the field of strategic communications, imitates the form and appearance of editorial content. It is seamlessly integrated into people’s online newsfeeds and social media posts.

The practice of native advertising is controversial, as scholars have highlighted over the past few years. Some argue that native advertising is the next big trend, as it effectively grabs consumers’ attention in this era of information clutter. Others criticize native advertising, as its guise of editorial content (like a news article or a generic Facebook post) is suspected to deceive consumers.

In this research, we aim to explore the impact of native advertising in the field of corporate social responsibility communication. Our research is motivated by the current practice of delivering CSR messages in the format of native advertising.

For example, you may have read a sponsored article in The New York Times about how Belvedere Vodka contributes to fighting HIV or another one in The Washington Post about Bank of America’s commitment to renovating disadvantaged communities. Despite the prevalence of native CSR messages, to our best knowledge, it largely remains unknown how creating CSR messages in the form of native advertising impacts consumers’ attitudes, skepticism, behavioral intentions and trust.

Existing CSR communication literature says scholars and practitioners are constantly seeking strategies to effectively reach audiences and invoke action. Therefore, native advertising as a relatively new message format for CSR communication deserves careful scrutiny.

Previous research on native advertising has confirmed the important role of consumers’ persuasion knowledge. In particular, if consumers recognize the persuasion purpose of a native advertisement, their persuasion knowledge will be activated, leading to less favorable responses to the advertisement and the brand. Therefore, persuasion recognition largely influences the effectiveness of native advertising.

A CSR message is different from a common advertisement in a lot of different ways. A prominent one is that a CSR message not only features a company, but a social cause. While existing research would suggest that persuasion recognition hinders the public’s evaluation of the company, little evidence can be found on how persuasion recognition influences people’s attitude toward and support for a social cause.

We plan to conduct our research using a multi-study approach. Study 1 will focus on the effects of recognizing the persuasion purpose of a native CSR message on individuals’ responses to a company and more importantly to a social cause. We will also compare the effectiveness of a native CSR message to that of a news article about the CSR initiatives and a web blog from a company that conducts the CSR initiatives.

Study 2 will build on the findings of Study 1. Suppose we find that persuasion recognition impedes the public’s responses to the company as well as the social cause. The next question is what can be done to decrease such negative effects. The solution we propose and test in Study 2 is related to the public’s motivation attribution of a company’s CSR initiatives.

Specifically, we predict that if a company can convince the public that its CSR effort is due to real care about society (public-serving motives) rather than being primarily for its own profit (firm-serving motives), the negative impact of persuasion recognition on the effectiveness of native CSR communication might be eliminated.

For further information on this study, email Linwan Wu at or Holly Overton at Results from the study will be available early next year. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center.