The year advertisers stop boycotting news

“Restoring digital advertising to quality news publishers is a rare case where companies can do good and do well.”

When I was publisher of The Wall Street Journal, we would give an airline advertiser a free substitute ad in the next issue of the newspaper if its ad happened to run alongside a news story about an airline crash. Airline marketers were happy to continue to support news with their advertising.

Fast forward to today, when the largest category of advertising is digital, with programmatic advertising placed through algorithms increasingly dominant. One of the less well-understood inputs into these algorithms is keyword blocklists. These are lists of words that the ad tech industry uses to exclude advertising from running on particular news stories. Over the years, these lists have ballooned, running well into the thousands of words. As a result, programmatic ads can be excluded from news stories that include words such as “Trump” or “Biden,” as well as “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “gay,” or “lesbian.”

The result is that much of the advertising inventory on news sites is deemed brand-unsafe. A significant share of the ad inventory of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times falls into this category. For sites serving Black or gay communities, 70% of the ad inventory can be excluded because so many of their stories include words that keyword blocklists have deemed too risky for ads.

This means companies find themselves effectively boycotting serious news, and disproportionately depriving high-quality news sites that serve minority communities. CMOs don’t mean to boycott journalism, but this is how programmatic advertising now operates. This unintended consequence of keyword blocking is especially ironic at a time when many corporations have publicly pledged to redirect more of their advertising to media serving Black and other underserved communities.

These keyword blocklists cost news sites a key source of revenues that could support newsrooms that badly need the funding.

In contrast, companies routinely find their internet ads running on websites publishing misinformation, healthcare hoaxes, and Russian or Chinese disinformation. My colleagues at NewsGuard, which rates the trustworthiness of news sites, this year worked with media measurement company Comscore to estimate that $2.6 billion worth of online ads from blue-chip companies annually run on sites that advertisers never intended. The problem is that programmatic algorithms don’t differentiate between misinformation sites and quality publishers.

Warren Buffett’s Geico, for example, has been the largest advertiser on Vladimir Putin’s site Sputnik News — a subsidy I’m sure Mr. Buffett does not intend or even know about. NewsGuard found ads from more than 4,000 advertisers running on sites publishing misinformation about Covid-19, its vaccines, and its treatments. NewsGuard now offers advertisers lists of thousands of high-quality news sites, including sites serving minority audiences, so that they can stop using keyword blocklists and instead be confident that their ads are running on quality sites. The billions of dollars now going to propaganda and healthcare hoax sites would be a big help in restoring support for journalism.

An increasing number of advertisers and agencies realize the impact of these blocklists on news publishers. A case study from ad agency IPG found that removing ads from low-quality sites and placing them on high-quality news sites resulted in lower ad rates to the advertiser — with higher clickthrough rates thanks to more engaged audiences. Restoring digital advertising to quality news publishers is a rare case where companies can do good and do well. With corporate social responsibility and ESG standards now so top of mind — along with the need to support the journalism that can strengthen democracies — I’m betting that 2022 will be the year when this happens.

When I was publisher of The Wall Street Journal, we would give an airline advertiser a free substitute ad in the next issue of the newspaper if its ad happened to run alongside a news story about an airline crash. Airline marketers were happy to continue to support news with their advertising.

Fast forward to today, when the largest category of advertising is digital, with programmatic advertising placed through algorithms increasingly dominant. One of the less well-understood inputs into these algorithms is keyword blocklists. These are lists of words that the ad tech industry uses to exclude advertising from running on particular news stories. Over the years, these lists have ballooned, running well into the thousands of words. As a result, programmatic ads can be excluded from news stories that include words such as “Trump” or “Biden,” as well as “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “gay,” or “lesbian.”

The result is that much of the advertising inventory on news sites is deemed brand-unsafe. A significant share of the ad inventory of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times falls into this category. For sites serving Black or gay communities, 70% of the ad inventory can be excluded because so many of their stories include words that keyword blocklists have deemed too risky for ads.

This means companies find themselves effectively boycotting serious news, and disproportionately depriving high-quality news sites that serve minority communities. CMOs don’t mean to boycott journalism, but this is how programmatic advertising now operates. This unintended consequence of keyword blocking is especially ironic at a time when many corporations have publicly pledged to redirect more of their advertising to media serving Black and other underserved communities.

These keyword blocklists cost news sites a key source of revenues that could support newsrooms that badly need the funding.

In contrast, companies routinely find their internet ads running on websites publishing misinformation, healthcare hoaxes, and Russian or Chinese disinformation. My colleagues at NewsGuard, which rates the trustworthiness of news sites, this year worked with media measurement company Comscore to estimate that $2.6 billion worth of online ads from blue-chip companies annually run on sites that advertisers never intended. The problem is that programmatic algorithms don’t differentiate between misinformation sites and quality publishers.

Warren Buffett’s Geico, for example, has been the largest advertiser on Vladimir Putin’s site Sputnik News — a subsidy I’m sure Mr. Buffett does not intend or even know about. NewsGuard found ads from more than 4,000 advertisers running on sites publishing misinformation about Covid-19, its vaccines, and its treatments. NewsGuard now offers advertisers lists of thousands of high-quality news sites, including sites serving minority audiences, so that they can stop using keyword blocklists and instead be confident that their ads are running on quality sites. The billions of dollars now going to propaganda and healthcare hoax sites would be a big help in restoring support for journalism.

An increasing number of advertisers and agencies realize the impact of these blocklists on news publishers. A case study from ad agency IPG found that removing ads from low-quality sites and placing them on high-quality news sites resulted in lower ad rates to the advertiser — with higher clickthrough rates thanks to more engaged audiences. Restoring digital advertising to quality news publishers is a rare case where companies can do good and do well. With corporate social responsibility and ESG standards now so top of mind — along with the need to support the journalism that can strengthen democracies — I’m betting that 2022 will be the year when this happens.

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