Research challenges thoughts on ad placement near hard news

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Placement of client ads on a news publisher’s pages has been a contentious issue for years. Placing them next to editorial covering, say, murders, cars crashes, negative stock market stories, etc., can be problematic as our advertisers can be sometimes unwilling to place their ads alongside certain these “hard” news items or topics, fearing the products advertised will gain unwanted, negative associations.

I read recently about an experiment in which participants read a number of differing articles with ads placed beside them. Using eye-tracking technology (from Lumens Research), there was a measurement of the attention readers paid to every article and ad. 

Research shows an advertiser's concern about being placed next to hard or difficult news isn't warranted.
Research shows an advertiser's concern about being placed next to hard or difficult news isn't warranted.

Results showed articles that captured a reader’s attention also increased their attention to ads on the same page, enhancing recall of the brand as well as purchase probability. 

But, importantly, the type of content (i.e. whether it as “hard” news or  “soft” news, had no impact on an ad’s effectiveness. 

Advertisers’ unwillingness to feature their ads next to “sensitive” news items has worrying implications for the idea around editorial freedom. 

Advertiser “black listing” or “blocks lists” could potentially soften the media appetite to cover hard-hitting articles, and, in turn, soften the news agenda, too, as many publishers will chase ad-generated revenue. Agencies will use block lists of particular subjects or words to prevent their client brands appearing beside news they deem unsuitable (e.g. terrorism, shock, or sexual content). 

But some would say these lists are a blunt instrument with an odd consequence, preventing ads from appearing next to highly popular (even if perhaps squeamish) items, making the more fearful brands miss out on desired exposure.

Previous research reveals some news media outlets tweak their content to suit advertisers’ preferences to avoid upsetting businesses (source: Beattie 2020/2021). 

This practice became more prevalent during the early part of the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, individuals were spending enormous amounts of time online, and visits to online media sites rocketed by 50% (source: ComScore 2020). However, following two decades of growth, advertising revenues during that springtime, fell by 23%–35% (source: Statista 2023).

This fall in revenue can’t be explained by the pandemic alone. Smaller spending on advertising was also due to commercial fears that brands would somehow acquire negative associations linked to the “hard” news of the day — COVID doom and gloom! 

Research results 

Lumen Research technology, which processes high-resolution images to calculate an individual’s gaze and eye movements, was able to precisely show how long people spent reading chosen articles and how much attention they paid to the ads displayed adjacent to those articles.

They showed that not only do readers pay more attention to ads featured alongside more captivating articles but also that ads placed beside captivating articles were more effective in inducing purchases.

The experiment allowed them to measure how engaged readers were in the article and how much time they looked at the ads as a result. 

The main findings — that ads are just as effective whether they are placed next to hard news or soft news and that engaging content generates attention to ads and influences subsequent purchase decisions regardless of its subject — challenges the notion of block lists. 

The more attention readers paid to advertising, the more likely they were to remember and then purchase that brand, regardless of whether the ad had been placed next to hard news. On average, every 2.76 seconds of attention paid to an ad increased the probability of purchase by about 2% — therefore proving that advertising next to hard news has no significant impact on an reader’s decision to buy that brand as a result. 

The implications

If we can discard the rationale for the wide use of block lists, this could help media groups resist any pressure from advertisers and continue to report on the hard-hitting topics. (This to be communicated as part of our consultative selling approach?).  

This research result also casts serious doubt on the value of those “clickbait-style” headlines. Wisdom indicates that once readers are tempted towards what turns out to be a “flimsy” story, they may focus more on an ad …  in the absence of what they feel would be engaging content. But the Lumens research suggests this isn’t the case. The less captivating the story, the less engaged a reader will be in any accompanying ad. 

Maybe this can all help repel the myths we see around advertiser reluctance and maybe too it can be just one more arrow in your sales team’s quiver to hit the client base with if they suspect a cutting back on advertising spend, based on what is, false information.

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About Mark Challinor

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