New research into readers responses to advertising shows that they are not put off by ads in a hard news context, and in fact are likely to pay more attention to such ads.

The Hard News Project, conducted by researchers Newsworks and Neuro-Insight, used focus groups and neurological tracking to determine whether readers’ and viewers’ levels of attention were different in different contexts. They found that they are not, as as sometimes been thought, turned off by ads in hard news spaces — they actually give those ads more attention.

Brain response imaging showed that readers and viewers spent an average of 45 seconds looking at ads in a hard news context, as opposed to 32 seconds spent on ads in a soft news or features context. That’s 1.4 times higher for hard news.

Late in 2017, the Chief Marketing Officer Council in the USA released findings that showed some negative reactions to programmatic advertising placed widely across internet sites where the content had not been checked by the advertiser. This led to advertisers restricting the range of sites on which their ads could appear, and creating blocks to the appearance of those ads.

The Hard News Project shows that some of that caution was justified, but the withdrawal of ads from hard news spaces may have disadvantaged advertisers who did not want to be seen in the context of ‘bad’ news or that of ‘offensive’ content. The research showed that readers are very competent at judging and sifting the news, and understand the context: 86% of the study’s respondents said they understood that news providers would provide them with ‘all kinds of stories’ and that ‘sometimes they can be upsetting or shocking’.

Denise Turner, the insight director of Newsworks, revealed the results of the research at a briefing in Britain in May. She said there was no indication that readers found advertising in the hard news context offputting, even if they had no particular preference for hard news over soft news or features.

The brain imaging showed increased levels of engagement, emotional intensity, and long-term memory formation among readers and viewers who were taking in hard news stories from trusted news brands.

Turner said that, in the light of the research, thought needed to be given to “defining suitable contexts so that brands can reap the rewards of conveying their messages to a highly attentive, intensely engaged audience in a compelling, emotionally powerful context”.