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Hard news is good news for advertisers, according to new neuroscience research

Newsworks’ latest study with Neuro-Insight shows that ads which appear around hard news stories on newsbrand sites elicit more and higher peaks in memory encoding and emotional intensity than ads in soft news stories.

Presented today at an IAB Town Hall event by Newsworks’ insight director Denise Turner, the findings show that the news environment creates high engagement and memory encoding for advertisers in both hard and soft news contexts.

There is no evidence that hard news stories create dislike – in fact, hard news stories generate a higher “approach” response, rather than a negative withdrawal response. These findings call into question an over-zealous approach to brand safety, for example, through blacklisting and keyword blocking. 

Brain response is similar for both hard and soft news

The research measured participants' brain responses to ads in different types of stories, analysing a number of sites in the brain in order to identify key research metrics:

Long-term memory encoding – Memory encoding is key because it correlates with decision-making and purchase intent. It is measured for both left brain (detail and language) and right brain (more global aspects of processing)

Engagement – Engagement is an indicator of how involved people are, and is generally triggered by material that is of personal relevance

Emotional intensity – Emotional intensity relates to the strength of emotion being experienced

Results show that the average dwell time is 1.4 times higher for advertising in hard news stories, which creates potential for brands to capitalise on the increased attention of readers.

The research indicates that people’s brains are more actively engaged in a hard news environment and there is more likelihood of key advertising messages being absorbed. This is because of the higher and more frequent peaks in memory encoding and emotional intensity.

Hard news ads elicit more peaks response

Comparison with conscious responses

Neuro-Insight also explored conscious responses to ads in hard and soft news stories in newsbrand content, to compare with the unconscious brain responses measured by neuroscience. They found that people can easily distinguish between hard and soft news stories and describe the emotions provoked, and that just because something is difficult, it can still be enjoyed: 

  • 86% agree that they “know that the role of newsbrands is to keep me up to date with all kinds of stories and that sometimes they can be upsetting or shocking”
  • 89% “like browsing my newsbrands and coming across new things”
  • Although some people prefer ads in a soft news context, others feel that ads in a hard news story are more trusted

Commenting on the research, Denise Turner said: “We already know that trusted newsbrand environments benefit advertiser brands, in terms of higher attention, stronger brand responses and better value. But there was a concern about the impact of appearing around hard news stories. While care needs to be taken, this research suggests that the current tools for assessing brand safety are too blunt. We need to think less about bans and more about 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.”

About the findings:

The study explored the variance in responses to advertising in different news environments.

Conducted by the neuromarketing and neuroanalytics company Neuro-Insight, the study used a mix of neuroscience to measure unconscious brain responses and more traditional quantitative and qualitative techniques, to capture conscious attitudes of readers.

Hard news stories covered breaking news, political news, conflict and crime stories. Soft news stories included celebrity news, lifestyle stories, royal news and human interest stories. 


The neuroscience element used Steady State Topography (SST), which measures second by second electrical activity in the brain in order to report on various cognitive functions proven to relate to advertising impact. Behaviour was recorded using a video camera, enabling Neuro-Insight to determine brain response at any one point in time.

133 participants took part, aged 18-65 years, 50% print and 50% online newsbrand readers.

The findings support recent Newsworks’ studies that show the benefits of placing ads in quality news environments, including Context Matters together with AOP and The Value of Quality project with GroupM. And the research builds on a joint thought leadership piece with the IAB titled “Safety vs suitability where does the line lie?” 

Following the Town Hall event, Newsworks will be working with the IAB and industry partners to develop best practice guidelines to ensure that brands can safely take advantage of the great environment that published media offers.

Read the full research story here.

For more information, please contact:

Liz Jaques
Head of Communications
+44 (0)203 949 7470

Liz Jaques 23/05/19

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