These Fortune 500 keyword blocklists are defunding the news

This unprecedented leak by Integral Ad Science shows us the news stories the world’s biggest companies refuse to fund — and it gets weird.

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).

Here’s what’s new with us:

  • Dark pool sales houses are now officially listed as a national security threat in a paper released by Harvard Kennedy School and the German Marshall Fund. BRANDED broke this story with Zach Edwards last July. 🎉

  • Nandini’s Twitter story about Uber’s $100 million discovery of ad fraud went viral. Guess no one noticed when it happened in 2017? The story shot to #1 on Hacker News and was featured in Pluralistic and Input Magazine this week.

  • Nandini’s commentary about buttflap pajamas got her quoted in Vice, Business Insider, and Gizmodo.


A keyword blocklist is kind of like a brand’s secret diary. 

It reveals all their collective corporate neuroses: their deepest fears, associations they want to avoid, and the topics they’re uncomfortable with. It’s a whispered set of instructions to their vendors, telling them exactly where they don’t want to be seen on the internet.

So naturally, a leading brand safety company has been leaking them.

Last BRANDED, we told you that Dr. Krzysztof Franaszek, founder of Adalytics.io, stumbled upon the proprietary classifications brand safety vendors use to determine what content is “brand safe.” But that’s not all. Thanks to Integral Ad Science we can see their clients’ keyword blocklists, too. 

👉 You can access Krzysztof’s findings here. Note: We’re looking at the entries marked “[Brand]_NEG or [Brand]_Negative”. These are most likely the blocklists. 

Originally, blocking “bad words” was a rudimentary way to prevent ads from appearing on potentially unsafe content on the web. But for some major brands, the practice has morphed into what appears to be a random collection of nouns they’re not vibing with.

For example, it looks like Boeing has “pop culture” and “television” on its blocklist, Microsoft has a blanket ban on “interracial,” JP Morgan is blocking “Taylor Swift,” and that T-Mobile doesn’t want to be anywhere near the word “Florida.” 

But let’s get serious. These lists, which are often applied by brand safety tech regardless of context, tell us exactly which types of stories are being wholesale defunded by major companies. 

For marketers, managing keyword blocklists is just another mundane task in their busy schedules, but every word we throw on the blocklist has enormous implications of what news stories get funded. In fact, the practice of keyword blocking blocked $3 billion from the global news media in 2019. It threatens the survival of our news media ecosystem. 

What are brands thinking when they make blocklists, and where is it really getting them? Today, we’re looking at Mastercard’s keyword blocklist and working our way backwards.

What you’ll see is how easy it is to unwittingly weaponize brand safety tech against news outlets, even when you have endless resources and your CMO is President of the World Federation of Advertisers.

So this is what a blocklist looks like

If you want to follow along with us, here’s “Mastercard_BlockList2_Dec2020” from Kryzstof’s dataset. This was the keyword list that Mastercard seems to have used for Politico.com.

For your convenience, we’ve organized them here by category: 

Places

barcelona; baghdad; iraq

Major crises

banking crisis; charlottesville rally; crash; plane crash; hurricane; flood; brexit; irma;

Words that describe economic bad times

bear stearns; crashes; foreclosure; fraud;

Words that describe violence

deadly; death; deaths; died; dead; deceased; massacre; casualty; shooting; explosion; gunfire; missile; gunman; gunmen; shooter; air strikes; ambush; bomb; hostage; child casualties; terrorist; terrorism; attacker; hijack; raid; daesh; al qaeda; daca; isis; isil; nazi; alt right; molester; child molester; pedophile; 

Words that suggest sex exists

sexual; pornography

Words about literally everything that happened in 2020

racist; racism; white nationalist; discriminated; protest; discrimination

Bad men

kevin macdonald;  matt lauer; hitler; john skipper; alex linder; jerry richardson; 

Capitalism 

keystone pipeline; citibike; fined; fines; 

????

shithole; warns; advisory; refugee; amtrak

“Harvey”  🤷🏻‍♀️ 

So what’s happening here?

First, despite saying they stand against racism, it looks like what Mastercard actually stands against is the keyword “racism” — that they’re withholding financial support from any story or journalist that uses the word “racism.” Not exactly great way to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Second, it looks like Mastercard wants their ads kept away from topics related to websites that promote violence. But what they’re actually doing is erasing their ads — and their ad dollars — from reports of the most pivotal events in 2020. 

Third, it looks like no one’s reviewing these blocklists before approving them for the next month. At one point, they didn’t want to advertise alongside stories about the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma. But that storm has been over for three years now... they can take it off the list.

We sent a request for comment to Mastercard last night. If they come back with an explanation we’ll update this post at branded.substack.com. 

Why are they blocking all this? 

It looks like Mastercard doesn’t want to be associated with financial and economic hardship. This does make some sense. They may not want to put themselves within a screenshot’s distance of a news story about foreclosures. 

But the rest of the list suggests they have bought into the toxic “best practices” peddled by the ad tech industry.

For their part, IAS recommends that you target “hero-related pandemic content” and purposely avoid placing ads on stories that may make people feel “negative.” Industry organizations like Trustworthy Accountability Group and Brand Safety Institute are also constantly rolling out surveys like this one to scare advertisers into believing that advertising on “sensitive” news stories may harm your brand.

But these surveys barely pass the common sense test. If you saw a Mastercard ad while reading a story in the Washington Post about a mass shooting, would you think that Mastercard supports murder? Would you refuse to use Mastercard all of a sudden? No, no one cares.

Not only do these claims defy logic, no CEO or ad industry representative has ever been able to provide an example of how advertising on reputable news coverage has led to any business consequences. 

It’s literally never happened. And yet here we are, listening to whatever advice this is:

“But Claire and Nandini, it’s not Mastercard’s job to fund the news”

No, it’s not. It’s their job to run effective marketing campaigns. 

Mastercard’s keyword blocklists reveal a problematic industry-wide practice: marketers are thinking about everything they want to block, without thinking about where they do want to show up on the internet.

Here are the consequences of that:

You block yourself from the highest-engagement places on the web. Mastercard’s marketing team probably doesn’t realize how much prime real estate and quality eyeballs they’re forfeiting through their blocklists. When people read the news, they read all the way through. They engage. They share.  “Just in case” blocking keeps you away from the people you want to reach most.

Your budget gets funneled towards fake news. What happens when you feed enormous sums of money into your campaigns but also block all the good, reputable sites because you’re afraid of current events? That money has to end up somewhere at the end of the month, and that somewhere is likely to be fake news, disinfo, and plagiarized sites run by unscrupulous people who know how to avoid keyword filters.

You miss branding opportunities. Coca-Cola didn’t block “Berlin Wall” when the wall fell. They showed up and handed out free cokes, and became an enduring part of the story.  People remember brands that show up during pivotal moments and times of crisis. Any blue-chip brand should be investing in social discourse. It’s just good practice.

It’s a bad idea to defund reality

By now, you may be thinking “Wow, keyword blocking is terrible. Mastercard should really think about switching to something more nuanced! Like page-level intelligence that dynamically scores individual pages in real-time to decide whether it’s brand safe.”

Yeah, it’s called “contextual intelligence” and that doesn’t work either. Krzysztof found that another brand safety vendor, Oracle Grapeshot has blocked Mastercard ads from three-fourths of New York Times articles.

Sure, the technology doesn’t work, but neither does the logic we use to operate them. Running our marketing operations like a bunch of engineers isn’t getting us the results we want. It’s almost like we have to start thinking like marketers. 

If you or your agency works with a brand safety vendor, here’s what you should do:

  • Review your keyword blocklist. Ask for a copy of it and send it back with heavy edits. This list should be short. Like, less than 7 words short. 

  • Build an inclusion list. When Chase Bank reduced their inclusion list from 400,000 to 5,000 websites, their performance stayed the same. What websites would you include in your list of 5,000?

  • Get the Adalytics extension (free). Krzysztof’s extension allows you to see which brands are blocking the articles you read. It’s pretty cool!

  • Check your ads! If you’re not sure how to draw the line for what is and is not appropriate use of your ad budget, get in touch with us.

Thank you for reading!

Nandini and Claire 


Did you like this issue? Then why not share! Please send tips, compliments and complaints to @nandoodles and @catthekin. Thank you to special guest @kfranasz.  

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