I just sent the following email to an Austin, Texas-based colleague:
Hey ______, Are you aware that an ad for your company, with your name on it, appears on Breitbart’s home page? Screen shot attached. Best, Rebecca
I also tweeted out the alert, copying Sleeping Giants, a coalition “trying to stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars.”
This issue — programmatic ads that appear on racist, sexist and otherwise extreme websites — is going to be an enormous one in the coming year. As is ad fraud.
We’ve already seen the trend developing. One of the most high-profile examples occurred late last year, when Kellogg’s learned its ads were appearing on Breitbart.com, in violation of the company’s corporate values and unbeknownst to the brand itself. Kellogg’s announced it would no longer advertise on the site, which prompted Breitbart to call for a boycott of the brand (a probable first in not just digital, but the entire history of advertising. When has a spurned media outlet ever enacted such a scorched-earth revenge against an erstwhile client?).
The issue isn’t just one of extreme political views and the even deeper polarization between Red and Blue, left and right that currently divide the nation.
Online advertising is already under siege. There’s ad fraud, ad blocking and ad skipping. Click-through rates hover around an abysmal 0.1 percent. Major advertisers, such as Kraft Foods, are rejecting up to 85 percent of marketplace ad impressions. The Association of National Advertisers engaged the help of investigative firms to probe fraudulent agency practices.
And now this.
We have a problem: Fake news and adjacency
“This” is not meant to imply a political argument. Instead, two other issues, (certainly related to the current political climate) are at play. The first is the much newer and highly publicized issue of fake news. The second is an issue as old as advertising itself: adjacency.
No advertiser wants their ads to appear next to news that’s detrimental to their product or that damages their brand. That’s why so many standard advertising contracts have adjacency clauses. Plane crash, no survivors? That page (online or off) is not where Delta, United or American Airlines wants to lure you into the happy skies.
New York Times readers remember this well. Following the events of 9/11, the paper instituted a separate section that ran ad-free to cover news of the disaster and subsequent recovery. If there’s an advertiser that wishes to promote its products directly adjacent to a seemingly never-ending stream of news about death, destruction and terror, I have yet to make that company’s acquaintance.
Fake news is a new wrinkle in the mix, one could call it adjacent to the adjacency issue. Again, no advertiser wishes to be party (or appear to endorse) lies, misinformation and propaganda. Like buying, tuning into or subscribing to a news source, advertising on that same source is an implicit endorsement of the outlet.
Vogue is a fashion authority. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post convey a certain gravitas to their advertisers. Brands whose ads appear — however inadvertently — on fake news sites may as well be peddling X-Ray Specs in the back pages of a comic book. Or worse.
Another dimension of this newly burgeoning problem is the recent eruption of a bumper crop of hate: xenophobia, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, the list goes on. In fact, the inspiration for this column came from a recent headline on a legitimate news source, DailyBeast.com: “Alt-Right Leaders: We Aren’t Racist, We Just Hate Jews.” As of this writing, my browser is showing a Best Buy and Verizon ad next to the piece. Good luck, guys. I’ve just lost my appetite for faster DSL or a new flat-screen TV.
Again, this loops back to adjacency, even if the authority of the news source isn’t in question.
How the new climate will affect digital advertising
The new climate of fake or offensively virulent news will affect digital advertising and online media in the following ways in the short term.
- Already, more than 500 advertisers have pledged to block Breitbart.com from their media plans. This list will only grow. And as advertisers bow to pressure from consumers, expect ad tech players and agency trading desks to follow suit, shedding fake and offensive sites.
- Platforms like Facebook are under pressure to assess news stories for veracity before promoting them. Advertisers too will be called to task in the same way. Both human and machine vetting and intervention will be worked on feverishly this year.
- Programmatic advertising, already suffering, will descend another peg or two until these issues are at least partially resolved. Abysmal click-through rates don’t cause consumers to rise in insurrection, but supporting (or appearing to support) hate and divisiveness is another matter indeed.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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