NIH awards $4 million grant to Emory University and University of Georgia to launch center focused on improving the health of Black children

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn named co-director of Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation and Combating Racism

Many Black communities in Metro Atlanta face high levels of environmental exposures that can negatively impact the health of Black children, and scientists are faced with the challenge of effectively communicating the dangers of environmental exposures to diverse communities. To address these issues, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a $4 million five-year grant to support research related to addressing health disparities through transformative communication strategies.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising at Grady College, will direct the health communication initiatives of the grant and serve as co-director of the newly created Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation and Combating Racism.

With this grant, an Emory-led team of environmental health scientists and health communication experts from the University of Georgia will join forces to translate important environmental health research findings to key stakeholders in the community, academia and health care systems. The new Center will develop high-impact messaging strategies that can be used to improve children’s health by focusing on health literacy and best practices in prevention communication and dissemination.

Faculty from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and Spelman College, one of nation’s most prestigious historically black colleges for women, will also play a critical role in advancing the science generated by the Center and ensuring meaningful discussions and rapid feedback between a community advisory board and all members of the Center.

Linda McCauley, dean and professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, will direct the new Center.

“This Center is uniquely positioned to foster excellence in research on children’s environmental health that will nurture the next generation of scientists and provide information that can benefit the Atlanta community, which has suffered from decades of environmental racism and has many of the highest levels of health disparities in the nation,” said McCauley. “Our goal is to improve the health of children, and we know better communications will lead to prevention and early detection of environmental health exposures.”

Ahn, who also directs the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at Grady College, will use her expertise in interactive digital media and health messaging at the new Center.

“We hope to expand the public health impact of children’s environmental health science by synthesizing existing research into innovative health communication interventions, curricula and policies,” Ahn said of the new project. “Together, we will identify target audiences among marginalized and under-resourced populations and design innovative health messages that can help us better communicate with audiences that have traditionally been challenging to reach.”

The Center will also partner with Sharecare, the digital health company whose comprehensive and data-driven virtual health platform helps people, providers, employers, health plans, government organizations, and communities optimize individual and population-wide well-being by driving positive behavior change.

Donna Hill Howes, RN, MS, chief nursing officer and SVP, corporate partnerships of Sharecare, commented, “Increasing access to information about children’s environmental health is critical to building strong, healthy communities. Working closely with our partners at Emory, UGA, and the Center, we believe that, together, we can effectively support the translation of health science to action-oriented information by leveraging our content and products, connecting stakeholders across fields, and utilizing our national reach to augment children’s environmental health.”

Emory is one of six academic institutions in a network of Children’s Environmental Health Research Translation Centers in the U.S., and it will serve as the National Coordinating Center for the network. The Coordinating Center will be led by Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Environmental Health Network. Other Centers were awarded to Johns Hopkins University, Oregon State University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and the University of Southern California.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P2CES033430. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Ahn leads VR project with grant from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn and a team of researchers are recipients of a nearly $500,000 grant funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The grant will fund a project called “Salient, Interactive, Relevant, Confidence, and Action (SIRCA): Using Virtual Reality Storm Surge Simulations to Increase Risk Perception and Prevention Behaviors.”

The project uses VR to better communicate and educate the risks of storm surge and climate change among coastal residents of Georgia and South Carolina.

“The problem of climate change and sea level rise is complex,” said Ahn, director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) at Grady College. “We need to be cognizant of the fact we are trying to solve a complicated issue and help communicate these safe practices with different resources and needs.”

The new grant proposal focuses on two areas: 1. the experience of storm surge and mitigation behaviors and 2. creating a cross-platform experience that can be used with both headsets as well as a two-dimensional experience, like a kiosk at a museum, to reach the largest number of people.

Viewers, for example, may go through a simulation where they see their home flooded and experience personal risk through a storm surge. Different solutions users could have taken to mitigate the damage ahead of time are presented, like buying flood insurance, elevating their house and evacuating. The exercise is then repeated to show the effect of the viewer’s decision.

This new project is an extension of a prototype developed a few years ago that used VR to demonstrate the extent of damage to a home hit by a hurricane. The prototype was funded through a 2017 UGA Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant.

A variety of platforms will be developed for this storm surge program to enable different audiences to learn in a variety of settings.

Ahn explains that organizations like NOAA are looking for the most effective ways to communicate the dangers of severe weather, and VR has been successful in converting messages to action. This is one of the first research grants like this from the NOAA Weather Program Office.

Studies show that messages delivered through a VR immersive experience have a longer lasting impact versus messages delivered by video or written communication.

The UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is a partner in this research along with Clemson University and the National Weather Service South Carolina office.

Jill Gambill, a coastal resilience specialist with the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, explained this will be an important step in communicating story surge risks brought on by hurricanes and this information is expected to be used by the Weather Service, Department of Natural Resources and emergency managers, among others.

“It can be difficult to estimate the risks and this can be helpful in understanding the impact and lesson the threat to their homes and to their families,” Gambill said. “It’s exciting to be working with this really cool product that will help people be safer.”

Another important part of this project is offering options that are available to diverse circumstances.

“We know options like elevating a house aren’t available to everyone and we want to make sure we are cognizant of presenting a range of recommendations to mitigate risk,” Gambill said.

The team will be working with organizations like the National Estaurine Research Reserve and Harambee House, an environmental justice group in Savannah, to ensure that the solutions meet the needs of communities.

The simulations will be paired with training modules through workshops and outreach, as well as follow-up surveys over time to determine if any actions were taken by those who experienced the VR education.

One of the most important benefits of VR is its impact in translational science, or taking scientific findings and communicating them to audiences so they can make informed decisions.

“Projects like this provide a huge opportunity for communication scholars to address critical social issues like climate change and directly impact the communities around us through communication science,” Ahn said.

The research is expected take place over two years.

Virtual reality research wins best paper for I/ITSEC simulation committee; advances to best conference paper competition

Research using virtual reality family rooms to bring together members of the military deployed overseas and their families back home has been awarded the best paper in the Simulation committee of the I/ITSEC conference, the world’s largest modeling, simulation and training event, which will be virtual this year.

A team of researchers from the University of Georgia conducted the research and wrote the paper, “Virtual Family Room: Bridging the Physical Distance with Virtual Reality.” The research was funded by a University of Georgia President’s Interdisciplinary Seed Grant awarded by the Office of the Vice President of Research in 2019. Winning in one of the six conference committees qualifies the paper to be considered for the top paper award, which will be presented and named during the virtual conference.

“This project is particularly important for families with young children,” said Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, principal investigator of the project and an associate professor of advertising at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Kids communicate most effectively through shared experiences and while most social VR experiences don’t cater to children, this one does because it is based on age-appropriate, family-based activities.”

The research focuses on a virtual world that is a replica of a family home and backyard. The same Virtual Family Room is shared through Oculus Quest headsets worn by the deployed military member who is away from home, as well as the family members back home. The family can collectively or competitively play common games in this shared space and the activities range from watching a movie together to playing basketball, working on homework or drawing together, among others.

“Regardless where they are, family members are always excited about the opportunity to share the same experience that the family had before deployment, and this application allows them to do that,” Ahn, who is also an Owens Institute for Behavioral Research Fellow, continued. ­

The paper submitted to I/ITSEC, now referred to as vI/ITSEC, was based on data collected from focus groups where family members simulated a deployment situation and were observed interacting and engaging. The data showed that families felt the interactions were more memorable and realistic than alternatives like video chat.

In addition to scenarios involving military who are deployed overseas, this research has applications for anyone who travels regularly for work or even to those who are separated from loved ones for like many are experiencing because of the pandemic.

Another new application of this research is that it focuses on family health and well-being and not solely on employee productivity which has been the focus of most VR research dealing with employees and work productivity.

“People can’t be productive when their children at home are having issues,” said Ahn, who is also a mother of a young child. “It’s hard for people who travel to focus on work when you have family problems. This application could help address that.”

Ahn and the rest of the team were encouraged to submit the conference paper to I/ITSEC by Martin Bink, director of defense and security collaborations at the University of Georgia. Bink is familiar with the conference and serves on one of the planning committees. Bink said the conference typically averages between 300 and 500 submissions, so the fact this paper was one of six papers that was awarded is impressive.

“The significance of this recognition is that it is a rigorous process and a prestigious conference,” Bink said. “Finding the best ways to use VR is of interest to attendees and the importance of taking care of families and the novel use of technology was probably appealing to the committees judging the projects.”

The researchers involved with this project are all from the University of Georgia and include Dawn Robinson, professor of sociology and Fellow in the Owens Institute of Behavioral Research; Catherine W. O’Neal an assistant research scientist in the Department of Human Development and Family Science and a Fellow in the Owens Institute of Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia; and Kyle Johnsen, an associate professor in the College of Engineering.

Several UGA doctoral students were also involved with the project including the lead author of the paper, Andrew Rukangu (engineering); Kelsey Mattingly (sociology); Anton Franzluebbers (engineering); and Alexander Tuttle (engineering).

The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) is the world’s largest modeling, simulation and training event and takes place online Nov. 30 – Dec. 4, 2020. Papers competing for the best paper award at the conference come from six committees including Human Performance Analysis and Engineering; Emerging Concepts and Innovative Technologies; Education; Policy, Standards Management and Acquisition; Simulation; and Training. The conference typically attracts nearly 17,000 attendees from a variety of sectors including the military, government, education and medical industries.

Ahn named co-editor of ‘Media Psychology’

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, director of Grady College’s Games and Virtual Environments Lab and an associate professor of advertising, has been named co-editor of the journal “Media Psychology” beginning fall 2020.

Ahn joins Benjamin Johnson from the University of Florida, Marina Krcmar from Wake Forest University and Leonard Reinecke from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, as editors of Media Psychology.

“Media Psychology has always been one of my favorite journals in the field of communication and media psychology because of its interdisciplinary, yet rigorous, nature,” Ahn said. “Because of this, the journal is relatively young but has quickly risen as one of the most respected and high impact publication outlets in communication that attracts high quality, cutting-edge research.”

Ahn’s research has been regularly published in “Media Psychology” over the past several years, and she has served on its Editorial Board for the past four years.

Ahn’s research specializes in how interactive digital media transforms traditional rules of communication and social interactions, especially through virtual reality applications with regard to health, consumer psychology, conservation and education.

She continued: “I am excited to continue this tradition and to maintain an interdisciplinary orientation for the journal so that researchers are able to submit rigorous, and also exploratory and forward-pushing ideas that test the boundaries of traditional sciences.”

Ahn was the recipient of the 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award presented by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for outstanding contributions in three key areas: teaching, research and public service. In addition to her work in the GAVEL lab, she is co-director of Grady’s VERGE Lab. Currently, she is working on a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for “The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem” encouraging children to have a more active lifestyle by using digital technology and incenting them with rewards through virtual reality interaction.

“Media Psychology” is an interdisciplinary journal devoted to publishing theoretically oriented, empirical research that is at the intersection of psychology and media/mediated communication.  Research topics include media uses, processes, and effects.

Grady associate professor tests virtual reality program in Brunswick

Virtual reality is no longer just a futuristic technology found only in sci-fi movies and video games. Now, VR programs are being used for treatment of PTSD, training medical students, and now, preparing at-risk communities for natural disasters.

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an associate professor of advertising, developed a virtual reality program that recently made its debut at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s open house on Sept. 26 in Brunswick, Georgia. The project is designed to familiarize coastal residents with the dangers of storm surges and how to prepare for a hurricane.

Ahn, the director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab, created the program in collaboration with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s coastal resilience specialist Jill Gambill, a Public Service faculty member at the University of Georgia, serving as the Coastal Community Resilience Specialist for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

The VR program was funded by an Interdisciplinary Seed Grant awarded by the president of the University of Georgia in June 2017. Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant provided supplemental funding to bring the project to completion.

Grace Ahn demonstrates the VR hurricane simulation to Jill Gambill on August 16 in the GAVEL Lab at Grady College. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Virtual reality is an immersive simulation that allows users to see, hear and interact with the created environment. Those testing the hurricane VR wore headsets and used handheld controllers to make decisions within the simulated situation.

“This was a very integrative project, combining [Ahn’s] expertise in VR design with my knowledge of storm surge and hurricane risks,” said Gambill, who is also a student in the Integrative Conservation PhD program at UGA.

In an interview with Future of Storytelling, Ahn says that VR technology is able to change behaviors in a way information alone cannot. By actively participating with VR, the user is invested in the given scenario and can see the personalized consequences of certain behaviors first-hand.

The hurricane VR program attempts to encourage users to make preparations and have a plan in place in the event of a storm surge. The program allows users to customize a coastal home, which is later damaged by a storm. The users then have the option of elevating their home by 10 feet, putting it out of reach of flood waters and storm surge. This action along with following suggested guidelines and emergency protocols protect themselves and their home from the storm.

“We’re trying to see if people understand that making these preparations is not as difficult as people might think,” said Ahn. “Coming back to your life after a hurricane may be a lot easier if you make these preparations.”

Georgia has been impacted by four hurricanes in the last four years: Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017, Hurricane Michael in 2018, and Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.

“These disasters took lives, damaged homes, businesses and critical infrastructure, disrupted livelihoods and had detrimental financial implications for the state,” said Gambill.

By educating coastal Georgians and others across the country on storm surge preparation, the VR program has the potential to mitigate the dangers of these natural disasters.

The hurricane VR was piloted at the open house to check the functionality of the program. Ahn and Gambill wanted to make sure users understood the instructions given in the simulation and could navigate the world without confusion.

Feedback from the users at the open house is being used to improve the program, which is estimated to be finalized by the end of the academic schoolyear.

“The VR is part of a larger effort, in terms of UGA researchers’ efforts to adapt to climate change and increase coastal area resilience,” said Ahn.

The final version of the VR program will be used as a teaching tool by UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.


Grace Ahn named 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award recipient

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising at Grady College, has been named the recipient of the 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. The award is one of the highest honors given by AEJMC, and will be presented during the annual AEJMC conference in Toronto.

“This is an enormous honor,” said Charles Davis, dean of Grady College. “The entire journalism and mass communication academy recognizes a single faculty member each year for this, so Grace has been recognized by the entire discipline.”

In addition to her role as associate professor, Ahn is also the director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab and co-director of the new VERGE Lab.

The award is named after the late Hillier Krieghbaum, a former professor at New York University and former president of AEJMC, to honor a journalism/communication faculty member who has made outstanding contributions to the industry in three key areas: teaching, research and public service.

Grace Ahn (right) leads an Alumni Weekend participant in a virtual reality workshop in 2017. (Photo: Camie Williams)

Ahn teaches undergraduate research methods classes, as well as graduate-level user experience research, communication theory and advertising classes.

Ahn’s research specializes in how interactive digital media transforms traditional rules of communication and social interactions, especially through virtual reality applications with regard to health, consumer psychology, conservation and education. Currently, she is working on a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for “The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem” encouraging children to have a more active lifestyle by using digital technology and incenting them with rewards through virtual reality interaction. In Spring 2019, Ahn received a First-Year Odyssey Teaching Award from the UGA Office of Instruction for her seminar, “Harnessing the Power of Digital Technology for Better Lifestyle Choices,” and was awarded the Charles B. Knapp Early-Career Scholar Award in 2017. She was recently awarded an Interdisciplinary Seed Grant from UGA for an upcoming project using digital technology to bring families of deployed military together in virtual family rooms. She also received the 2017 AEJMC Emerging Scholar Grant.

“Emerging technologies like VR/AR have the potential to dramatically shift the way we communicate and interact with each other,” Ahn said of her work. “My research looks at how audiences can engage with virtual worlds in unprecedented ways, and how these virtual experiences impact the way people think and make decisions in the physical world. I’m incredibly honored and humbled to be recognized for the contributions that my work has been making to extend the earlier work in this area.”

Ahn will accept her Krieghbaum Under-40 Award during the General Session at the AEJMC Conference on Aug. 9 at 10 a.m.

In addition to Ahn, Yan Jin, the UGA Athletic Association Professor in Grady College, received the Krieghbaum Under-40 Award in 2014.

Grace Ahn of Grady faculty leads $3.3 million grant award

Creating sustainable habits to increase physical activity and improve health is a goal many people share.

Now, thanks in part to a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Georgia are using virtual reality to help children develop a more active lifestyle.

“The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem: Using Digital Technology to Promote and Sustain Moderate-to Vigorous Intensive Physical Activity in Children,” will fund a five-year program through the after-school program sponsored by the Metro Atlanta YMCA. Children ages 6- to 10-years-old will participate with their parents in the program.

“With this grant, we will try to encourage kids to exercise more, learn how to communicate with their parents regarding the exercise, and maintain and sustain a level of physical activity that they experience after school,” said Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and principal investigator for the study.

The virtual dog that children interact with does a series of tricks including fetch, roll-over and stand-up, among others.
The virtual dog that children interact with does a series of tricks including fetch, roll-over and stand-up, among others.

Each child participating in the study will wear a personal fitness tracker, like a Fitbit, and set personal physical fitness goals. A virtual buddy kiosk will automatically detect each child’s physical activity status and send real-time updates to parents via text messages, even when they are not with the children.

One of the keys to the program will be social support from the parents. Every time the child participates in physical activity, the virtual buddy kiosk will send a text message to the parents notifying them of the activity. They can, in turn, send a message back to the child encouraging them and motivating them to maintain the activity. Parents can also closely monitor the child’s physical activity progress over time through a password-protected website specially created for the project.

Once the physical activity goals have been reached, children will be able to interact with a personalized virtual pet to as a reward. Using these everyday communication devices, the virtual pet, children and parents will be able to interact seamlessly together to create a robust ecosystem of support so that children can integrate physical activity into their daily lives.

Ahn says a lot of parents want to be involved with their child’s activity level and have good intentions of doing so, but don’t have the resources available to them while they work.

“We are presenting an intervention that allows them to be involved and that allows their children to be involved,” said Ahn. “We see a lot of excitement and willingness to take part in this.”

Ahn predicts that by harnessing the power of technology to connect people and devices, physical activity among children will increase, and will be maintained over extended periods of time.

“Dr. Ahn’s work explores issues critical to the health and vitality of American children, using the very latest in digital technology,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “Her research really represents Grady’s depth in emerging media technologies that can be used to address so many different issues of vital importance to citizens.”

Several successful pilot studies have already been conducted over a three-day time period to test the feasibility of bringing virtual reality to children of this age group. This grant allows the study to become much larger and increase the trial period to three months and include 720 children and their parents.

“With an innovative and multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Ahn and her colleagues are working to help young people lead healthier and more active lives,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten. “They exemplify how the breadth of the expertise at the University of Georgia makes this institution uniquely positioned to address some of the most important challenges facing our state and world.”

When the study is complete, a three-month, six-month and 12-month follow up will be conducted to see if the physical activity levels were sustained. Self-reports of data evaluating the continued interaction between the parents and children will be recorded, along with physical activity levels as read by the personal fitness trackers. Results will be compared with a control group that will have the physical fitness trackers, but not the virtual buddy kiosk nor the parental interaction.

In addition to the benefits of increased physical activity among children and increased involvement with the parents, Ahn said the program has the potential to reduce labor costs with traditional methods of hiring and training personnel who work as physical coaches.

Five other researchers at UGA are working on this grant, including Kyle Johnsen, associate professor of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; Michael Schmidt, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Education; Stephen Rathbun, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in College of Public Health; Leann Birch, the William P. “Bill” Flatt Childhood Obesity Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Margaret O’Brien Caughy, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn named Early Career Scholar

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, assistant professor of advertising and founding director of Grady’s Games and Virtual Environments Lab, was named the recipient of the Charles B. Knapp Early Career Scholar Award in Social and Behavioral Sciences. She accepted the award during an April 20, 2017, University of Georgia Honors Week ceremony.

The award is named in honor of the University of Georgia’s 20th president and recognizes outstanding accomplishment and evidence of potential future success in scholarship, creative work or research by an early career faculty member in the social and behavioral sciences.

Ahn is a prolific researcher in the fields of virtual reality, augmented reality and how immersive virtual environments influence user attitude and behavior. Much of Ahn’s research focuses on the technology of persuasive messages in health applications and seeing how to make them personally relevant to the subjects, frequently tapping the disciplines of communication, psychology, computer science and public health.

Ahn also serves as a researcher for the Center for Health and Risk Communication.

Two Grady College professors receive 2017 Emerging Scholar Grant

Grady College professors, Ivanka Pjesivac and Grace Ahn, received grants as 2017 Emerging Scholars for their project on the topic of “Virtual Reality Journalism: Emotions and News Credibility.”

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s awards the $3,500 grant and travel support to winners of its Emerging Scholars Program. This program is one of the most prestigious research recognitions for junior scholars in the association.

“Virtual reality has been present for some time, but virtual reality journalism, also called immersive journalism, is a relatively new storytelling technique starting to be used by The New York Times and The Guardian,” said Pjesivac, an assistant professor of journalism.

The professors noted that their study is one of the first to empirically test immersive journalism’s impact on the audience’s ability to empathize with the journalistic subject. Because the news method is highly engaging, many believe it will allow audiences to better experience the news firsthand.

“Many have suggested the promise of virtual reality as a novel platform for storytelling,” added Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising. “Despite the enthusiasm, however, the question of whether virtual reality is indeed an effective journalistic channel remains grossly underexplored.”

The 2017 AEJMC selection committees received 70 total submissions and spent hours reviewing applicant’s research proposals. This year, the selection process was particularly competitive.

Determining factors for a winning proposal include innovation, importance to the discipline, clarity of background research, reality of project completion during time available and intelligent use of funds.

Research finds consumers are more accepting of native advertisements

The line between online content written by journalists and story-like ads that are paid for by specific corporations can be blurry, but, according to a new study, consumers don’t seem to mind—as long as the content meets certain criteria.

In a study published recently in American Behavioral Scientist, researchers at the University of Georgia, San Diego State University and Syracuse University found that consumers are becoming more accepting of native advertisements, especially when they are sponsored by a company with which the consumer has a strong relationship or if the advertisements provide information the consumer can use.

In the past, companies worried about whether their hard-earned dollars spent on native advertisements, which look similar to the other material that surrounds it whether online or in print, were actually harming their reputation with their consumers.

“What we found is that if there is useful information contained in the advertisement and there is a recognized brand logo, then the credibility of the company is not damaged,” said study co-author Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, assistant professor of advertising in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “In our study we found that when we honestly tell people that a company is sponsoring the ad, their perception of that company didn’t change.”

The study involved 105 participants who were asked questions before and after seeing a native advertisement to determine their attitudes and perceived relationship with a specific company and brand. The researchers then asked the participants to go online and read a native advertisement which was written like a traditional news article. The organization sponsoring the native ad was disclosed to 55 participants; the sponsorship was not disclosed to the other 50 participants. Researchers evaluated whether it was important for content to be disclosed as an advertisement and whether the disclosure affected the attitude of the brand and company.

Of the 55 respondents who knew it was an advertisement, the research indicated the relationship a consumer had with an organization was not affected when they knew the advertisement was sponsored by a brand.

“Prior research has shown that when advertisers played around in spaces like this, it would damage the relationship they had with the public, especially if they did not disclose that they were behind the content,” said the study’s lead author Kaye Sweetser, an associate professor at San Diego State University. “What we found in our study is that rather than decrease the relationship, there was no change. This is a step in the right direction for public relations practitioners who don’t want to damage the relationship, and this could eventually mean that this type of content might potentially improve a relationship.”

The native advertisement used in the study was an actual ad sponsored by a well-known company and it included some multimedia elements. According to Sweetser, the participants tended to stay on the page for an average of eight minutes even though they knew it was a sponsored advertisement.

“The main message here is that if you can create something that is interesting and use extremely compelling storytelling with interesting multimedia, you can hold people on the page,” Sweetser said.

Future research will look at how every extra second consumers spend on a page affect their relationship with an organization, as well as their perception of its credibility and their overall brand attitude.

While the study showed that brand attitude for obviously sponsored content decreased slightly, it also showed that if the content was valuable or if the consumer perceived it as being useful, participants would have a favorable brand attitude whether the sponsorship was disclosed or not. If the consumer had a positive attitude toward the brand before the survey, it led to higher perceived usefulness in the native advertisement. The higher perceived usefulness, in turn, led to more favorable attitudes toward the advertisement and ultimately toward the brand. The survey concludes that when information usefulness is high, consumers may overlook the persuasive nature sponsored advertisements typically include.

“The presence or absence of sponsorship information didn’t affect the company’s credibility,” Ahn said.

According to Sweetser, this research bodes well for future efforts by public relations professionals.

“I would love to see how these boundaries might continue to be pushed and whether we could see an increase in an organization’s relationship with their publics as a result of something like native advertisements,” Sweetser said. “Organizations can step away from the overt publicity of themselves and their products and provide deeper, longer-form, compelling storytelling that their publics may be seeking.”

Additional researchers on the study were Guy Golan of Syracuse University and Asaf Hochman of Outbrain in New York.

The study, “Native Advertising as a New Public Relations Tactic” is available online in the November issue of American Behavioral Scientist.