Online Advertising as a World of Manipulation. The International Perspective of Management and Marketing Students

March 5, 2021

Jan Wiktor headshot Dr Katarzyna Sanak-Kosmowska headshotBy Prof. Jan W. Wiktor and Dr Katarzyna Sanak-Kosmowska, Department of Marketing, Cracow University of Economics

What is the “world of manipulation” like in marketing communication, particularly in advertising? An empirical study aimed to answer this question was undertaken by the Department of Marketing of the Cracow University of Economics. Our research was facilitated by a grant from the National Centre for Science in Poland, entitled Asymmetry in On-line Advertising vs Manipulation of an E-Consumer’s Behaviour [2018/29/B/HS4/00563, 2019-2021]. The basic part of the study, conducted on a representative sample of Polish inhabitants (N=1004) and a group of enterprises (N=103), covered the period 2019–2020. Currently, the results are being analyzed for the needs of a monograph approved for publication by Routledge.

This blog presents a small but interesting fragment of a pilot research study conducted on a group of 955 students of management and marketing from 13 countries. Apart from Poles (444 participants – 46.5%), the sample comprised students from universities in Belgium, Croatia, China, Czechia, Finland, Georgia, Japan, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Slovakia and Ukraine (a total of 511 participants – 53.5%). The national groups differed considerably in terms of size (Japan, N=209; Ukraine, N=54 China, N = 41, and an average of 25 students from the remaining countries). Apart from differences in size, the analyzed group was relatively uniform. It was composed of students attending similar academic major programmes, who - as confirmed by an analysis of data – possessed similar digital competences and represented similar “digital lifestyles” (the term coined by S. Jobs, W. Isaacson’s biography). The composition of the sample can be explained by the digital competences of generation Y, regardless of visible differences in “the development of the economy and the digital society” in an international perspective (The International Digital Economy and Society Index: I-DESI’EU).

We regarded the respondents’ digital competences as a significant issue. They did not refer to the knowledge about software or IT techniques but their acquaintance with online advertising. Our intention was to find logical correlations between respondents’ characteristics, expressed by digital competences, and their assessments of online advertising, its forms, tools as well as its specificity. The respondents’ knowledge was tested in our questionnaire in the following areas: four elements of online advertising (the concept of retargeting, contextual targeting, newsletter personalization, and the knowledge of the CRO process), and two general but significant “digital world” issues: the significance of cookie files and the knowledge about the Cambridge Analytica scandal (described by Christopher Wylie in an interesting book Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and The Plot To Break America).

The research study focused on the following groups of problems: 1) the perception of the intentions of advertisers and advertising messages, 2) an assessment of the impact of advertising on e-consumers, and 3) the role of advertising in the purchasing process. Our research aimed to investigate social opinions on the functions, tasks and characteristics of online advertising and Internet users’ experiences related to manipulation in advertising.

The analyzed problems are commonly regarded as the basic areas of international comparative research studies on advertising. We asked our respondents to express their opinions on the reception of advertising in social life, its presence in the world of media, the role of advertising at each of the five stages of consumer market behaviour, the nature and quality of information in advertising messages, the reliability of the sources of commercial messages, the attitudes of students, young consumers, to selected forms of online advertising, and their impact on buying decisions. We undertook to explore the mechanisms and ways of perceiving online advertising, the selectiveness of perception, an assessment of ads personalization, a sense of information asymmetry, and the experience of manipulation by various forms of creativity in advertising.

Out of a large number of the analyzed issues, we give attention to several areas that can be interesting in the context of International Business and arouse the interest of blog readers. The results of the research lead to the below presented conclusions.

Nearly half of the students (47.6%) from 13 countries treat advertising as a form of manipulation. However, there are certain differences at international level. Half of Polish students feel manipulated by online advertising (51%). Foreign students’ opinions are similar and shared by 46% of students from 12 countries of the world. Interestingly, the percentage of Japanese students who hold this opinion is considerably lower than the “international average” - 38%. The interpretation of responses leads to a significant question – are cultural differences an explanatory variable?

Students as young consumers are aware of leaving their “digital footprint” that can be used to manipulate their behaviour by advertisers (80% of yes responses from Poland and 54% from other countries).

Responses varied with regard to the question whether advertising has an information advantage over consumers. “No” answers were given by 33% of Poles, while yes responses by 49% of students from the remaining countries.

The results of our research contribute to debates on “the world of manipulation in advertising”. Information technologies create specific tools, which are used by companies in the marketing communication process to influence consumers. Advertisers do it by communicating hidden messages based on various creative strategies, information asymmetry, flexible organization of online campaigns, or creating the appearance of users’ strength, knowledge, competences and skills in reaching specific information and making “independent” decisions. All this is enhanced by various forms of brand communication in social media, creating groups of brand supporters and fans, awarding prizes for disclosing internet users’ personal data etc. All these elements constitute the essence of social manipulation.