New research by David Michaelson and Don Stacks, members of the Institute for Public Relations Commission on PR Measurement & Evaluation, has found public relations placements and advertising to be equally effective in generating consumer interest in a newly launched product. 

In a study presented at the Institute’s Summit on Measurement at the end of last month, the two found no statistically significant difference between advertising and editorial coverage in an experiment focused on key measures of credibility, knowledge, interest and purchase intent. 

The researchers “created” a new snack food to eliminate any bias associated with specific brand preferences. The product, Zip Chips, was then described identically in advertising and a news article as having full taste with no sodium or fats. Some members of the target audience—a sample of more than 350 adults in five markets from Maryland to California who read a newspaper at least once a week—were exposed only to the advertising message, some only to the news article, and some to neither communication as a control group.

Although the respondents said that they got more information from the news article (despite identical information in the ad), that did not increase the believability of the message. Nor were there significant differences between ad and editorial regarding purchase intent, although those reading the news story showed less variance in overall interest.

“It’s important to remember the study dealt with one-time exposure to a branding campaign in print for a new product, and the ability to drive interest in a consumer product,” say the researchers.  “We don’t know yet whether this might change with non-consumer and technology products, with corporate-level issues, or using other types of media.  But this study shows public relations to be as effective as advertising at far lower cost.”

Michaelson is president of David Michaelson & Company LLC.  Stacks is a professor in the University of Miami School of Communication.