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Diane Ravitch's Blog: Sam Wineburg: The Lies That Advertisers Tell Students

Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. This essay is based on his latest book, with co-author Mike Caulfield, Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions about What to Believe Online (University of Chicago Press, 2023). Here, he highlights the ways that corporations deceive students with advertising that looks like news.

Our Kids Are Being Sold to and They Don’t Know It – And Neither Do We

A recent California bill mandating the teaching of media literacy cites a Stanford University study showing that “82 percent of middle school pupils struggled to distinguish advertisements from news stories.” Along with my Stanford colleagues, I was the author of that study.

Between 2015-2016 our research team collected nearly 8,000 student responses. In one exercise, we asked middle school students to examine the home page of Slate, the online news magazine. The site was organized as a series of tiles, each with a headline, the name of the author, and an illustration. However, some tiles were author-less, such as “The Real Reasons Women Don’t Go into Tech,” which was accompanied by the words sponsored content. This label notwithstanding, the vast majority of middle schoolers believed that “The Real Reasons Women Don’t Go into Tech” was news.

If only the solution to students’ confusion were as simple as teaching what “sponsored content” means.  In the past few years, a dizzying array of terms—“in association with,” “partner content,” “presented by,” “crafted with,” “hosted by,” “brought to you by,” or, simply—and enigmatically—“with”—have been concocted to satisfy the Federal Trade Commission requirement that ads be labeled. As we describe in our new book, Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Choices What to Believe Onlineit’s not only middle school students who are getting hoodwinked by this farrago of terms. We all are. 

Researchers at Boston University and the University of Georgia surveyed people across age levels and backgrounds after they had read a 515-word article, “America’s Smartphone Obsession Extends to Online Banking.” The article came with a label saying that it was created for the Bank of America. But the disclosure was overshadowed by the masthead of The New York Times and the article’s headline. Only one in ten respondents identified the article as an ad. The marketing firm Contently found similar results: 80% of respondents mistook an ad in the Wall Street Journal for a news article. The study’s author, an advertising insider with reasons to downplay the obvious, admitted: “There’s little doubt that consumers are confused by native ads.” 

Native ads, so-called because they’re designed to fade into the surrounding “native” content, use the same fonts, color schemes, and style as regular news stories. An article may look like news, written by an independent and trustworthy journalist, but in reality, it’s tainted by the agenda of the company that paid for it. You think you’re being informed only to find out—if you do find out—that you’re being swindled. In 2018 native advertising raked in $32.9 billion, eclipsing all other forms of digital advertising and growing at astronomical rates.

At first, it was only scrappy upstarts like BuzzFeed (masters of clickbaity stories like “Ten Important Life Lessons You Can Learn from Cats”) that pioneered this new form of advertising. But as ad income plummeted in places like The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC, they, too, got in on the game. Initially, the price didn’t seem too steep: sacrifice a modicum of integrity to stay afloat. But the slope downward was slippery. If the long-standing commitment of journalism was to erect a wall of separation between the news side and the business, native advertising dissolved the mortar in the wall. The resulting seepage blurred the boundaries beyond recognition. Publishers tried to convince themselves they weren’t doing anything wrong. But in their heart of hearts, they knew they were engaging in journalistic hanky-panky. “When I explain what I do to friends outside the publishing industry,” wrote one publishing insider, “the first response is always ‘so you are basically tricking users into clicking on ads.’ ”

In 2019, after a stream of headlines bemoaning the confusion caused by misinformation, we undertook a second study. This time our sample matched the demographic make-up of high school students across the country. Over 3,000 students with access to a live internet connection participated. One exercise asked them to evaluate items appearing on the website of The Atlantic.  The first, entitled “Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War,” was written by Venkatesh Rao; the second, “The Great Transition,” featured an infographic about energy usage along with the statement, “saving the world from climate change is all about altering the energy mix.” The logo of The Atlantic appeared in the upper left corner next to a hyperlink with the words “Sponsor Content What’s this?”, next a small yellow shell. Two-thirds of high school students failed to identify the infographic as an ad from Shell Oil.

=Why should we be concerned?  To start, if students are to become informed citizens, they need to understand that multi-national companies are not in the business of helping humanity or adopting stray animals. Their goal is to please shareholders by increasing profits. Fossil fuel companies, especially, may want us to think they’re on the right side of history when it comes to climate change. But actions speak louder than ads. Clean energy investments by big oil companies (“renewable resources” as the Shell ad calls them) represent a mere sliver, one percent, of their yearly capital expenditures, a pittance compared to what they spend exploring and discovering new ways to dredge fossil fuels from the earth and sea. Shell might not be outright lying in its infographic but we can be sure of one thing: they’re not going to pay for something that casts them in a negative light. The whole point of native advertising is to burnish a company’s image. Instead of having us view Shell as the enemy of climate change, its ads are designed to soften us up, to plant a seed of doubt. “OK, they may be an oil company,” we’re supposed to think, “but maybe—just maybe—they’re really trying.” 

We can sum up why we should teach students to be skeptical of Shell’s infographic in three words: conflict of interest. It goes against the company’s interest to be forthright about the harmful effects of fossil fuels. Big oil, writes Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and author of Why Trust Science, “may be a reliable source of information on oil and gas extraction,” but they are “unlikely to be a reliable source of information on climate change.” Why? For one simple reason: “The former is its business and the latter threatens it.”

It’s not just big oil who’ve gotten in on the native ad game. With China and Russia leading the pack, foreign governments spend millions of dollars to place “news” stories in leading digital publications like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. In the twelve months from November 2019 to October 2020, the China Daily Distribution Corporation funneled over nine million dollars to influence American audiences. A favored venue was MSN, Microsoft’s web portal, which featured an upbeat story about how Tibet, the nation ravaged by China in a brutal 1950 takeover, had “broken free from the fetters of invading imperialism and embarked on a bright road of unity, progress and development.” Nowhere does the article say the story was paid. You only discern this if you recognize “Xinhua” as China’s state-run news agency.

Whether paid for by a multi-national corporation or a foreign government, the goal of native advertising is the same: to persuade us when our guard is down. Sponsors know that if their message were plastered with the word “ad” in big red letters, we’d ignore it. At the same time, it’s important to understand that just because something’s an ad doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false. Big companies are wary of ads backfiring. They fear the consequences of being outed as liars. Persuasion can assume many forms in addition to outright lying. An ad can tell only part of the story. It can leave out the broader context. It can ignore evidence that goes against the story a company or foreign nation wants to tell. It can emphasize some facts and de-emphasize others. It can use examples that tug at our heartstrings, even when those examples misrepresent general trends. In fact, a partial truth is often more dangerous and harder to detect than a pack of lies. 

The internet is one giant marketing experiment and today’s students are the guinea pigs. Richly compensated PhDs work diligently figuring out how to deceive them without their noticing.  This deception is not an aberration or bug in the system—it’s how the game is played. Our students are part of a treacherous game. If we don’t teach them how it’s played, who will? 

Certainly not Shell Oil. 


Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. This essay is based on his latest book, with co-author Mike Caulfield, Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions about What to Believe Online (University of Chicago Press, 2023)


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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...