Marketers are increasingly preventing their ads from appearing alongside content related to Black Lives Matter protests, with some blocking keywords including “black people,” “George Floyd” or “BLM,” according to a top executive at Vice Media.
The exclusions are driven not only by specific brand requests: Agencies have long used third-party brand safety vendors to avoid specific keywords, including “murder” and “riot,” which allows them some control over the content environment in which digital ads appear. But publishers say those keyword lists—meant to ensure a brand’s identity and messaging and to prevent it from being seen as endorsing controversial content—represent outdated and discriminatory technology. In addition, some media buyers use so-called dead person lists, which include names of prominent people, including Floyd, and avoid those stories altogether.
Keyword blocking also limits the revenue publishers can derive from what is typically their top-performing content, and many of them have begun pushing for reform.
Vice reviewed its catalog of news stories between June 2 and June 8 to see how much revenue each article generated on a CPM basis—the cost to show an ad 1,000 times—on the open programmatic marketplace. Although content related to George Floyd—protests, riots and Black Lives Matter—delivered the most traffic, CPMs were 57 percent lower than for ads associated with news stories on other topics, says Paul Wallace, VP of global revenue products and services at Vice Media.
“It’s an unfortunate impact on journalistic businesses such as ourselves,” Wallace says. “A portion of how we monetize content has to be programmatic. And to take a clip like that really works against what we are trying to do here. It makes it difficult for the rest of the news organization to create that content and inform the world.”
Bad news for publishers
Vice Media has long opposed some keyword blocking practices. During the 2019 NewFronts, it called on advertisers to reconsider blocking words including “gay,” “fat” and “Muslim.” Says Wallace, “We received quite a bit of applause that day, but nothing has changed. The blocklists have only gotten larger.”
“Blocklisting” was adopted by Vice since “blacklisting” and “whitelisting” carry racist undertones, the company says. Some media agencies are also using "exclusion" and "inclusion" lists. Blocking keywords such as “black people” also underscores some of the issues buried deep within the digital ad tech ecosystem, says Cory Haik, chief digital officer at Vice Media.
“In a lot of ways this falls under the covers of the complexities within ad tech,” Haik says. “Keyword targeting around Black Lives Matter and George Floyd represents macro aggressions within the structural framework of how we support media and journalism.”
Wallace says clients seldom check their blocklists, if at all. “They admit they never checked,” he says. “Or they say they check every six months. Given how quickly the news changes, six months is a long time."
The solution, he says, is simple: “Review your lists.”
“The one that freaked us out the most was ‘black people,’” says Wallace. "That is a descriptor of a person and there is nothing negative about that. But by putting it on a blocklist it is effectively saying that it is.”
“There are a dozen algorithms out there working on behalf of these third party technology tools that are identifying these words and adding them to lists without anyone having lifted a finger,” he adds.
A call for better tech
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a publisher trade body whose members include the Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast, Vox Media and Complex Networks, says ad technology must improve.
“It seems to be a circumstance where blunt decisions are being made with regard to efficiency, scale and targeting of audiences with no regard to the important coverage of these protests or any consideration of whether the publisher is a trusted news organization,” Kint says. “The outrage of millions of people around the world and the subsequent protests is the most important conversation happening right now in our society and advertisers are running away from it.”
Joshua Lowcock, chief digital and brand safety officer at UM, says the agency has not added words to its exclusion list. There have been temporary pauses in ad spend across media for some clients, however, as being in market would have appeared tone-deaf, he says. The company is actively moving clients away from using keywords as a tool, says Lowcock.
“We have made it clear that brands that want to support justice and show solidarity for the black community cannot avoid or exclude advertising on news, on racial injustice, protests,” Lowcock says. “These stories need to be both funded and told.”
Not controversial to black people
Alfred Liggins, CEO of Urban One, a publicly traded black media company, says programmatic CPMs for its Black Lives Matter content are 43 percent lower than for other content. Topics including voter suppression and police brutality are important to the community, but are often seen as controversial by brands, Liggins says.
“Historically, many brands will tell you that they don’t like news because they don’t want controversy,” says Liggins. “But lots of brands buy CNN, Fox News and MSNBC so that axiom doesn’t hold true.”
He adds that marketers need to think differently when targeting black audiences.
“That’s the nature of reporting news that’s germane to the African American community,” says Liggins. “What brands need to understand about African American programming is if they’re not African American they may find it controversial—but it isn’t to black people.”
“It’s informative and endearing to black people because you’re telling their stories from their points of view about their lives,” Liggins adds.
The cost of incorrect blocking
A report from cybersecurity company Cheq, whose clients include Dentsu, Spark Foundry and ADK, says $2.8 billion was lost due to “incorrect blocking of safe content on premium news sites” in 2019.
The company says roughly 90 percent of its clients requested some form of disengagement from content surrounding the protests following the riots in Minneapolis.
The company’s software for keyword blocking is welcomed by publishers such as Vice, as it uses natural language processing to “read” stories and understand context before deciding whether stories are brand safe. An article containing the word “shooting,” for instance, may relate to a basketball game or movie and not violence.
Guy Tytunovich, CEO at Cheq, says the 90 percent figure would have been much lower had COVID-19 never taken place.
“Unfortunately, news is typically negative even in a regular year,” Tytunovich says. “But this year has been quite pivotal for news and brand safety. The market reaction for COVID-19 prepared marketers for their ‘I’ve had enough’ response that we’re seeing right now.”
Despite Cheq’s advanced blocking techniques, the news surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests has overwhelmingly been negative, Tytunovich says, adding that the company’s natural language processing technology would have scored most stories as being too negative for most brands regardless.
Meanwhile, contextual targeting company GumGum takes a similar approach and applies computer vision to determine the context of any given story. Despite its tools, the company often must work with an agency’s third-party brand safety vendor, which provides GumGum with their own blocklists. Under those circumstances, nearly 60 percent of all stories related to Black Lives Matter in GumGum’s publisher network are blocked, the company told Ad Age.
Some agencies use a dead-person list to block ads from appearing next to coverage of prominent people who have recently died—including George Floyd.
“You have protocols because brands don’t want to be associated with deceased people,” says Phil Schraeder, CEO at GumGum. “But it doesn’t decipher around the positive or negative. A memorial service for George Floyd could be a positive story.”
Jonathan Ashton, founder and CEO of Ringer, a consultancy that caters to agencies and focuses on improving performance, says the current climate is more than a media challenge.
“Instead of seeking tactics to avoid issues of race and inequality, brands have to transform themselves to be relevant,” Ashton says. “The lasting solution is a creative challenge. We have to push our clients to stop being advertisers and instead become participants in the lives of our communities. Our shared creative challenge is to push our thinking from the primacy of social media to a time of social action.”