Special Session Summary When Boundaries Between Program and Commercial Media Content Get Blurred: Consumer Awareness and Attitudes Toward Hybrid Messages


Siva K. Balasubramanian (1998) ,"Special Session Summary When Boundaries Between Program and Commercial Media Content Get Blurred: Consumer Awareness and Attitudes Toward Hybrid Messages", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 176-177.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 176-177



Siva K. Balasubramanian, Southern Illinois University, U.S.A.


Recently, several commentators have noted the erosion of the traditional "wall" that separates program content from commercial content in media vehicles (Beatty 1996; Strauss and Reeves, 1992; Warner 1995). Balasubramanian (1994) attributed this erosion to the growing prominence of "hybrid" marketing messages, a genre that creatively combines key elements of advertising and publicity. Hybrid messages are more credible to audiences because they resemble program content (i.e., sponsor is not identified), yet allow sponsors to retain control over the message (i.e., they are paid for). Because they are "hidden yet paid" marketing messages, hybrids raise public policy issues.

According to Balasubramanian (1994, p. 30), hybrids include "..all paid attempts to influence audiences for commercial benefit using communications that project a non-commercial character; under these circumstances, audiences are likely to be unaware of the commercial influence attempt and/or to process the content of such communications differently than they process commercial messages." Examples of hybrids include product placements, infomercials, program tie-ins, and masked messages (see Balasubramanian 1994 for several illustrations).

Current knowledge on hybrid messages, and the session’s contribution

Research on hybrids is a relatively new enterprise (Balasubramanian 1994). Only a few studies on movie placements exist (Nebenzahl and Secunda 1993; Gupta and Gould 1997). Infomercials, program tie-ins, and masked messages remain relatively unexplored at this time. However, the three papers in the session provide a critical mass of substantive insights that is likely to stimulate research interest in this new area of inquiry.

The first paper (Gupta, Balasubramanian, and Klassen 1997) provided an overview of the product placement concept from a variety of perspectives: the moviemakers, product manufacturers, and consumer advocates. The paper also focused on consumer perceptions and attitudes toward germane issues surrounding product placements (e.g., whether they enhance realism in movies, whether they are ethical, whether they need to be regulated or banned, whether they affect the likelihood of watching a movie and/or buying the products placed therein). Although their analysis of a large sample of students in the U.S. midwest indicated generally favorable attitudes toward product placements, their data also revealed the presence of a segment that disliked such messages. Several managerial and public policy guidelines were presented.

The second paper (Singh and Balasubramanian 1997) focused on infomercials. Guided by past research on message-length and message credibility effects, the authors presented a theoretical framework suggesting that infomercials lie on a theoretical continuum between ads and direct product experiences.

Results from their experiment comparing ad, infomercial, and direct product experience formats generally supported the framework. More specifically, the authors reported that direct product experiences produce better recall, attitudes, and purchase intentions than the ad format. However, no significant differences emerged on these variables when the infomercial message format was compared with direct product experience. The latter finding suggests that infomercials may exhibit strong persuasive characteristics typically associated with direct product experiences. In addition, the authors presented evidence indicating that the typical 30 minutes-long infomercial format may not be optimal from a message effectiveness perspective. In particular, the 15 minutes-long infomercial generated better impact than the 30 minutes-long infomercial

The third paper in the session (Balasubramanian 1997) summarized findings from four surveys in an ongoing study. The first survey was mailed to members of a consumer panel in early 1991; the purpose of this survey was to empirically establish, for the first time, the awareness and attitudes toward several types of hybrid messages. The second survey, completed in early 1994, repeated many of these questions, and was also directed at the same consumer panel. The third survey focused exclusively on one hybrid type (infomercials), but was directed at a large national sample of U.S. households in 1993/94. The final survey conducted in early 1997 included questionnaire items from the first two surveys, and addressed a large sample of households in the U.S. midwest. Taken together, data from the four surveys capture perceptions of hybrids at both regional and national levels, and also provide an opportunity for assesing longitudinal changes.

Although the survey results indicated a growth in awareness about hybrid messages over the study period, this growth was not evenly spread across different types of hybrids. For example, both unaided-awareness and aided-awareness about infomercials went up more impressively over the seven year period than corresponding levels for other types of hybrids. Nevertheless, survey participants’ attitudes toward infomercials and masked messages were significantly more unfavorable when compared to their attitudes toward other hybrid types. In addition, respondents’ attitudes toward hybrid messages were significantly more unfavorable than their attitudes toward advertising or publicity messages. Several implications for public policy, regulation, and consumer welfare are discussed.

Finally, Michael Solomon’s research work on product symbolism and consumption constellations (research areas that are conceptually allied to hybrids) provided a natural backdrop for synthesizing what we already know, and what we need to research further, about hybrids. As the discussant for the session, Solomon provided an integrative summary of its main themes from the perspective of consumers, message sponsors, media, and public policy officials.


Balasubramanian, Siva K. (1994), "Beyond Advertising and Publicity: Hybrid Messages and Public Policy Issues," Journal of Advertising, 23 (December), 29-46.

Balasubramanian, Siva K. (1977), "Consumers’ Awareness and Attitudes Toward Hybrid Messages," Working Paper, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.

Beatty, Sally G. (1996), "History Channel Blurs the Line With Sponsors," The Wall Street Journal, June 3, B1.

Gupta, Pola B., Siva K. Balasubramanian, and Michael L. Klassen (1997), "Consumers’ Evaluations of Product Placements in Movies," Working Paper, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.

Gupta, Pola B., and Stephen J. Gould (1997), "Consumers’ Perceptions of the Ethics and Acceptability of Product Placements in Movies: Product Category and Individual Differences, The Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, Spring, 19(1).

Nebenzahl, Israel D., and E. Secunda. "Consumers’ Attitudes Toward Product Placement in Movies." International Journal of Advertising 12, (1993):1-11.

Singh, Mandeep., and Siva K. Balasubramanian (1997), "A Comparative Analysis of Advertising, Infomercial, and Direct Product Experience Formats," Working Paper, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.

Strauss, Gary and Linda D. Reeves (1992), "A Fine Line Becomes Finer: More Ads Meld with Entertainment," USA Today, September 8, 6B.

Warner, Fara (1995), "Why It’s Getting Harder to Tell the Shows From the Ads," The Wall Street Journal, June 15, B1, B11.



Siva K. Balasubramanian, Southern Illinois University, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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