I am proud to announce, far too late for it to do any good, that I have discovered the one thing in the petty, grueling, factionalized 2016 presidential election – other than the fact that the 2016 presidential election was remarkably petty, grueling and factionalized – that the entire American electorate can agree on.
Testing the kids
I mean, I work in the media, but sticks and stones. Neither side in this election so much as spoke the phrase “mainstream media” without an invisible “…which sucks” appended. But good news, everyone! Stanford has figured out the problem: it’s people.
Wait, no. I’m sorry. That’s Soylent Green. Soylent Green is people.
The Stanford study tested schoolkids’ ability to assess the value of digital media. In fact, it tested middle school, high school and college students, but let’s talk middle school. The study concluded that middle schoolers – a demographic not on the whole notable for buying power or political influence – rely on obvious signifiers as to whether something is an advertisement or an article, such as visible dollar amounts or the “big blue X” that nice websites provide for unwelcome banners. OK?
Where data gets a bit deeper
But then things get interesting. In the executive summary of the study, available as a free PDF, Stanford draws that conclusion from an experiment in which students – again, we’re talking middle school here – are shown a fake but convincing frontispiece of the online news magazine Slate.com. One’s a banner ad, which more than 75% of subjects correctly identified. Ten-year-olds got the ad. Done, right?
There were two more pieces to look at: a “sponsored content” native advertisement and a non-sponsored article advocating consumers buy California almonds. Stanford was troubled by how many students failed to identify “sponsored content” as an advertisement, and the other as an article.
I’m not. Here’s why, straight from the students themselves.
Regarding the actual article: “It is an advertisement because they are trying to persuade people that almonds aren’t bad and that you should buy them.” Well… yes. That’s what it’s doing, and that’s what an advertisement does.
Discussing the sponsored post: “There is nothing to suggest that something is sold. No money, deals, etc. It sounds like an article.” Well… no. There isn’t. None of those things appear in the “sponsored content” presented.
They’re not wrong
Recall that both those arguments are being made by people under 14. And as the linked summary shows, the title and tagline of the article some students “inaccurately” identified as an advertisement? “Should California Stop Growing Almonds? The nut has been vilified for drinking up the state’s water supply. It doesn’t deserve such a bad rap.” Bolding in the original emphasizes the article’s perceived bias.
These students aren’t reading the material wrong; they’re reading it as written. They’re deciding whether to treat something as an article – important information for a reader to assess for themselves – or as an advertisement – an argument meant to elicit a particular act from the reader – based on the content, not the format. Not what it looks like, but what it says. Because in post-smartphone digital media, whether it’s Slate or The American Genius, pretty much everything looks like an ad.
Nice work, kids.
Screenshot courtesy of Ev Williams.