A Thursday New York Times story that featured live coronavirus updates displayed several ads for an n95 respirator, which are in short supply among medical professionals. Such ads are problematic because, in this instance, the surgeon general has urged Americans not to buy such masks. The issue in this case became so challenging for the company that it’s since halted running programmatic ads from showing up in its coronavirus newsletter, a person familiar with the situation says.
The publisher is also proactively and re-actively blocking such ads, as similar ones are still finding their way through as well. The ad shown in Thursday's Times' story came from Best Dang Stuff, an ecommerce site of questionable repute, and was purchased programmatically through Google. The search giant says it's since removed the ad, citing policy that prohibits content that capitalizes on tragic events.
“Since January, we've blocked hundreds of thousands of ads that attempted to capitalize on the coronavirus situation and we continue to take action to prevent these ads from serving,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
Some companies apply to buy ads through Google with one set of messages. If accepted, they can swap out the approved creative with something neither Google or The Times had previously greenlit. Such practices are difficult to police, says Marc Goldberg, chief revenue officer at brand safety company Method Media Intelligence.
“Bad actors will see the opportunity and capitalize on it,” says Goldberg. “The underbelly is opportunistic.”
Goldberg adds that publishers may sometimes lower prices for individual ads, or loosen their own programmatic rules in an effort to drum up demand for display inventory. Earlier this month, The Times said it was seeing a slowdown in ad sales stemming from “uncertainty and anxiety” prompted by the coronavirus, adding that it expected digital ad revenue for its current quarter to fall 10 percent.
Stopping ads like the n95 respirator “is next to impossible” in an automated way, says Augustine Fou, an independent ad fraud researcher.
“Scammers are taking advantage of every feature in ad tech,” Fou says. “They’re spreading fear, panic or disinformation to sell masks.”
The problem is reputable publishers are letting unknown third parties stick ads on their website without knowing ahead of time who those actors are and what type of ad will ultimately be shown, according to Fou.
He also adds that ad buyers such as Best Dang Stuff can target consumers reading about the “coronavirus” with ads for products like the respirator—a practice known as contextual targeting.
As an example, contextual targeting might show ads for private yachts to someone who is reading a story about boats. Although contextual advertising predates programmatic, ad tech companies have been evolving their capabilities in the face of increasing privacy regulation laws and the demise of the third-party cookie, both of which will make targeting individuals more difficult.
Meanwhile, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai posted a letter on the company’s website earlier today highlighting several efforts the tech giant has made to products like Search, Maps and YouTube that surface accurate information to consumers about COVID-19. The company is also running public service announcements from the World Health Organization to promote its message.
“This is where ad tech platforms need to step up and act responsibly to prevent the spread of misinformation and public harm,” says Joshua Lowcock, chief brand safety officer at UM. “Others who offer contextual targeting should follow Google and Facebook’s lead and give ad credits to WHO and prioritize their ads rather than profiting from opportunists looking to exploit the situation.”