Podcast: Personalization and disclosures in digital advertising, with Dr. Alexander Pfeuffer

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Dr. Alexander Pfeuffer sits down at the annual Grady College Holiday party.
Dr. Alexander Pfeuffer at the annual Grady College holiday party. (Photo:Jackson Schroeder)

Brands and organizations want to attract consumers and gain their trust. Accomplishing both of these tasks, though, is no easy feat. Two factors that greatly impact the attractiveness of advertisements and consumer trust are the personalization of advertisements — adding names and images to ads, for example — and disclosing if and how an advertisement, whether its an image, video or user review, may be manipulated or influenced by a brand.

In this episode, Dr. Alexander Pfeuffer, an assistant professor of advertising in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College, speaks about his research addressing those very topics. 

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for clarity and brevity. 

Grady Research Radio: To start, I want to ask you a little bit about your recent research work. I know you recently worked on a study for the Journal of Interactive Advertising that evaluated the effectiveness of personalized recruitment ads. Can you walk me through that study — what you were seeking to learn and what you found?

Alexander Pfeuffer: Yes. So this is a study that was led by Jean Pfiffelmann at EM Strasbourg Business School. The study aimed to address the challenge of organizations recruiting new talent to replace retiring workers. 

A quote card that reads "We have globalization, technological change and all of that shaping the job market. So organizations sometimes find themselves in the position of, you know, having skill shortages. The study wanted to see whether advertising could help organizations meet that challenge." We have globalization, technological change and all of that shaping the job market. So organizations sometimes find themselves in the position of, you know, having skill shortages. The study wanted to see whether advertising could help organizations meet that challenge. 

We looked at personalization as one potential strategy, and that means including personal identifiable information in the ads. We looked at literature on personalization that was out there. We saw that recruitment advertising had rarely been examined and that the insights there are on personalized product, service or commercial advertising in general may not easily translate into the recruitment advertising context. 

What we found was actually pretty cool. In the recruitment ad context, we found that personalization could be beneficial to organizations. When an organization addresses potential employees on social media by using both their image and name, they feel treated more considerately. They perceive that organization as more attractive, and they were much more likely to subsequently want to pursue that job or to click on the ad and learn more about the organization. That strategy worked specifically for individuals who perceived the message as less relevant to them on the outset.

Grady Research Radio: Great. So were those the results that you expected to find in your hypothesis for this study, or were you surprised by those results in any way?

Alexander Pfeuffer: I think from the existing literature, we thought that maybe using a name of a person was enough personalization. We thought that using images might be perceived as being too intrusive.

But we saw that using just the name actually was not effective. I don’t know if that has to do with the context of it being recruitment ads or if it has to do with, you know  — personalized names have been used a lot in email marketing and in commercial ads. Maybe the effects of that, which have previously shown to be effective, may no longer be novel and may no longer exert that effect. 

So we saw that it really took the name and the image of that person to have that effect. And it needs to be someone who wasn’t really that involved with a message to begin with.

Grady Research Radio: Backing up a little bit, can you give a more holistic introduction to your research  —  what the majority of it focuses on? 

Alexander Pfeuffer: My research focuses on digital advertising effects, broadly. I look at that through a lens of consumer protection and empowerment, and I explore effects that focus on theories of persuasion and the construct of trust. 

So the majority of my research has focused on approaches of ensuring that consumers are informed about the persuasive nature of their content and how that empowerment influences advertising effects.

Grady Research Radio: Great. So, reading through a little bit of your research, I noticed there seems to be this overlying trend that transparency is often a good idea for marketers in terms of boosting consumer trust. So, is this true? Can you explain where it is true and why that might be?

Alexander Pfeuffer: I’ve looked at a variety of disclosure messages that aim at making sure that consumers are informed. Originally, I started looking at that in the sponsorship disclosure context, and I found that consumer responses to those disclosures were nuanced. 

So, in terms of the effects that we see, it matters what type of sponsorship was entered — what sort of deal was entered and was disclosed. We saw that, for sponsorship, consumers were much more likely to accept a message that was sponsored by the reviewer receiving a free product, as opposed to receiving payments or a commission. 

I think the interesting bit was that we saw that the free product sponsorship was statistically equivalent to a review that ostensibly was not sponsored and didn’t have a disclosure at all.

Grady Research Radio: Okay, great. So this might be asking you to speculate slightly, but are there any instances where a marketer or brand can be too transparent — where transparency can hurt them or their brand?

Alexander Pfeuffer: In the context of my research, we’ve seen that being more forthcoming was of benefit to brands. So, giving that additional information instead of just a general disclosure was more accepted by consumers. 

(Consumers) are actually somewhat cynical or suspicious of more general disclosures that simply thank the brand for making something possible, versus saying specifically what they received in return. 

Grady Research Radio: In that regard, do you believe that this is a trend that will continue? Will consumers continue or increasingly want to see specifics in disclosure messages, rather than the general disclosure messages such as, as you mentioned, thanking a brand for making something possible.

Alexander Pfeuffer: I think it’s a trend that we’ll see in different contexts as well. I’ve expanded my research to looking into disclosures in the context of image manipulation. So we’re seeing that there are certain countries that are already putting requirements in place that photoshopping would need to be disclosed.

We actually just presented a study at an international advertising conference in Europe, in Prague, that focused specifically on that. In that case, we were less concerned with, you know, how that would affect the effectiveness of the ad and more interested in, can we mitigate potentially harmful effects of image manipulation, which has been linked to issues of mental health and negatively affecting beauty standards. 

We saw that those disclosures, and specifically if they are more detailed, through different mechanisms, have the potential to reduce some of those negative effects, particularly in terms of the extent to which we compare our own bodies to maybe unrealistic depictions of human proportions that are often depicted in those social media posts.

Grady Research Radio: Following up on that — if governments start to mandate that you have to disclose the information that this image has been manipulated, do you think that image manipulation will continue at the same rate that it might be at right now? 

Alexander Pfeuffer: I will have to speculate. I don’t have the data on that. But those limitations apply to sponsored content specifically. We also saw that those disclosures had some negative effects on how consumers perceived brands and also content creators.

So, I would think that it could be beneficial to brands to have less retouched images. We’ve seen brands already trying to show more realistic depictions in their ads, even outside of the social media space.

Grady Research Radio: Now moving forward — what’s next for your research? Is there anything that you’re working on right now or in the near future that you’re particularly excited about?

Alexander Pfeuffer: Yeah, so as an extension of the research that I just talked about with image retouching, we’re also looking at CGI influencers and how disclosing to consumers that an influencer that they’re seeing is actually computer-generated might affect how they perceive the brand, how they perceive that content creator, and how much they would be willing to rely on that information. 

So that’s research that’s going on right now. I’m working on that together with Haley Hatfield and Jooyoung Kim, and Nate Evans was also part of the image retouching project. We’re going to be presenting that at the American Academy of Advertising conference in Denver next March.

And then another thing going on is — so one of my research lines has been striving to apply marketing principles and my interest in trust in the context of health and sustainability. So, an ongoing project right now, which was actually funded by the American Academy of Advertising and also by the Coleman Group, which is a consulting firm in Atlanta, looks at the role of trust in social media content about the Covid-19 vaccine.

Essentially, we’ve seen a lot of content come out, be it from institutions and organizations, but also from fellow social media users about their personal accounts and personal experiences with (the Covid-19 vaccine).

We’re interested in seeing, what are the content attributes? So — what are specific aspects of the content that would let audiences generate an initial level of trust so that in a polarizing context we can get to a point where we have a base level of trust so we can engage with the information rather than outright rejecting it before evaluating it in the first place.

Grady Research Radio: Great. Well, thank you for joining today. 

Alexander Pfeuffer: Thank you so much for having me.

Grady College names 2021-22 Teachers of the Year

Grady College is happy to recognize its Teachers of the Year for the 2021-22 academic year: 

Grady College is also happy to recognize the 2021-22 recipient of the Roland Page Award for Outstanding Graduate Faculty:

  • Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, Journalism. 

The Teachers of the Year are annually selected by their peers, based on excellence in the classroom and student feedback. The recipient of the Roland Page Award for Outstanding Graduate Faculty is annually nominated and selected by graduate students. 

“Winning the Teacher of the Year award in one of our departments is saying something, because these hallways are lined with award-winning teachers. It takes a superb effort to rise to the top of this competition,” said Charles Davis, dean of Grady College.

Dodie Cantrell-Bickley advises students on the set of Grady Newsourse. (Image: Sarah E. Freeman)

Cantrell-Bickley, who previously spent more than 30 years in various roles for television news stations, is known by students for her enthusiasm, high energy, interesting and inspiring stories and persistent willingness to help students both inside the classroom and during the job hunt. 

“(Professor Cantrell-Bickley) communicates a lifetime of experience in easy-to-understand and widely applicable techniques, quotes, witticisms, and when need be, lectures. All of this is done in a frank and personable manner with respect to who students are and who we are developing into as people,” wrote one student.

“The Journalism Department is so lucky to have Dodie,” added Janice Hume, head of the Journalism Department and the Carolyn McKenzie and Don E. Carter Chair for Excellence in Journalism. “She offers students the perfect mix of professional rigor and support. She does as much for students outside the classroom.”

In 2021, Cantrell-Bickley launched an all-volunteer news production program focused on social justice that attracted students from freshmen to seniors, and she led a team of faculty coaches and students to produce the hour-long documentary, “The First Five: The Integration of University of Georgia Football.”

Mattison, a filmmaker and author, uses his large bank of experiences writing and directing to teach his students what it takes to create stellar films. 

“Some students in his directing and capstone courses come away with award-winning films. But they all come away with invaluable knowledge, experience and insight into the skill, inspiration and determination it takes to create an entire, original visual story from the ground up,” said Jay Hamilton, head of the EMST Department and the Jim Kennedy New Media Professor.

Booker T. Mattison celebrates with students during Grady’s spring 2022 graduation celebration. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Outside of the classroom, Mattison recently finished shooting for his upcoming film “Sound of Christmas,” which stars musical artist and actor Ne-Yo and will air on BET during the holidays.

Pfeuffer is known as an avid proponent of active learning, a teaching method that focuses on engaging with students through discussion and problem solving. 

“Professor Pfeuffer is absolutely amazing. He’s so understanding and so concerned about every one of his students. He makes sure we understand the material, while still being genuinely concerned about our workloads,” wrote one of his students. 

“Alex is a beloved professor who teaches tough core courses in the curriculum,” added Bryan Reber, head of the AdPR Department and C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership. “The fact that students express the fact that they don’t have to come to his classes, but they want to come to them, speaks volumes.”

Smith, who specializes in teaching Graphic Communication, is beloved by her students for preparing them with applicable skills for their careers. 

“Kristen is an excellent instructor!” wrote one of her students. “She was always engaging and excited about our work and eager to both give helpful feedback and listen to students’ ideas. I feel like I learned a lot about graphic design, to the point that I would feel comfortable doing graphic design work when necessary in my career.”

“Kristen Smith continually embraces new pedagogical models in her teaching,” added Reber. “Even when it means that it will increase her workload, she is willing to take the plunge and try new ways to critique and grade student design work. Kristen is a remarkably dedicated teacher.  Our students are fortunate when they wind up in her classes.”

Rice is an expert health and medical journalist and communications professional with experience reporting for some of the nation’s top news organizations and serving as the director of media relations for the American Cancer Society. She is praised by her students as a mentor inside and outside of the classroom. 

“Professor Rice has gone above and beyond countless times for me and my peers in and outside of the classroom,” said one graduate student. “She helped me network and helped me get an assistant producer freelance job that I am enjoying so much!”

Brands gain or lose trust from consumers based on transparency and type of sponsorship agreement with online reviewers

Sponsored marketing efforts online can create less trust with consumers when consumers do not have clear understanding of the sponsorship terms. That is according to a study co-authored by Alexander Pfeuffer, assistant professor of advertising. The article, “Effects of different sponsorship disclosure message types on consumers’ trust and attitudes,”was published in International Journal of Advertising.

Pfeuffer and his co-author, Jisu Huh (MA ’00, Ph.D ’03) of the University of Minnesota, collected responses from more than 700 American adults when exposed to a variety of different sponsorship disclosures. The study participants watched designed product reviews and were surveyed. Their responses measured the level of consumer trust created based on the review.

Online product reviews are increasingly influenced by compensation from marketers, which causes a higher degree of bias and subjectivity.

This is a screenshot from one of the videos shown to study participants. Based on the content and review disclosure, researches measured the level of consumer trust.

“Based on the study insights, brand managers may benefit from offering sponsorship in the form of a free product for review, rather than offering payment for a review or a commission,” Pfeuffer said.

Consumer opinions of brands was higher when the online reviewer revealed they received a free product from the brand as opposed to financial compensation.

Pfeuffer says consumers react differently to varying levels of sponsorship and brands should limit the perception of sponsor-influenced bias from reviewers.

“The kinds of sponsorship deals that signal highly partial product reviews would cause negative impact on consumers’ trust in the product reviewer and attitude toward the sponsoring brand, compared to other kinds of sponsorship arrangements signaling higher impartiality,” said Pfeuffer.

Based on this study, Pfeuffer recommends more detailed sponsorship disclosure guidelines from the United States Federal Trade Commission and other global advertising regulation bodies. Online product reviews are increasingly influenced by compensation from marketers, which causes a higher degree of bias and subjectivity.

“Current guidelines are often vague and differ in their recommendations about the types of sponsorship that should be disclosed and the wording and information that should be included,” Pfeuffer said.

The consumer perception on sponsorships online can help more than marketers and consumers. Pfeuffer says content creators in online mediums can learn from this when negotiating their sponsorship deals. Findings suggest content creators are less likely to experience fractured audience trust if they accept a free product rather than compensation, like payment or commission.

You can read the study in its entirety by visiting this link.

Editor’s note: Jisu Huh was also the recipient of the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Scholar Award.