Blacklisting “Coronavirus” is not helping anybody

Brand safety companies are keeping marketers away from their biggest audiences.

Greetings from… home! We have been at home and glued to the news, just like you.

During this time, we have seen many reports of brand safety technology companies openly blacklisting the keyword “coronavirus.” Some are bragging (?) about it to customers. We are confused by this.  

Did they not read our recent newsletter about how keyword blacklisting is hurting newsrooms

DoubleVerify (an ad verification company) uses a "cloud ad" in place of a regular ad when they deem the page not "brand safe." When the ad is blocked, the site cannot make revenue. It looks like this:

Blacklisting keywords deprives news organizations of critical ad dollars. Newsrooms depend on ad revenues to operate. We depend on the news to tell us what is real and debunk what is not. This is a very important relationship. Especially now, when readers are actively seeking out information, stories, features and anything they can get their hands on to help them navigate these times. 

Real people are demanding hard news. That is exactly where brands should be. Instead, brand safety companies are dropping the ball in a big way: 

Blacklisting the news is a bad idea

The New York Times reports that Integral Ad Science (another ad verification company) is categorically blocking the keyword “coronavirus”: 

Last month, the technology company Integral Ad Science blocked the “coronavirus” keyword 38.4 million times, making it the second most blocked term online in February behind “Trump.” 

This means that they are also blocking coronavirus-reporting news. Blacklisting keywords without whitelisting legitimate news sites deprives news organizations of ad dollars. By doing this, we are keeping ads away from real eyeballs. Worse, where do those ads go? They are likely ending up on fake news sites that know to avoid the word “coronavirus.”

According to DoubleVerify, for the top 100 US news sites, blocking the word “coronavirus” is only reducing ad impressions by 2%. That doesn’t sound like a lot. However, given that they have been blocking ads from prime real estate on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal last week, we imagine this represents a significant loss to national and local newsrooms.

Asking customers to make their own blacklists

DoubleVerify is asking its customers to manage and create their own blacklists: 

Proper understanding and use of keywords is one of several tools, alongside semantic science content classification, inclusion/exclusion lists, and other settings that enables brands to have the clarity and confidence they need in their digital ad campaigns.

As marketers ourselves, we can confirm that we are already very busy. Asking us to stay on top of fake news, disinformation, and keyword block avoidance tactics requires a SWAT team of its own. 

Monitoring hundreds  of thousands of websites - with new ones created everyday - does not seem to be an appropriate ask of a marketing team. 

The truth is, there are a finite number of trustworthy publications out there. We would think it would be included in the services of a brand safety company’s value proposition.

Keeping it all in a black box

How exactly does keyword blacklisting work? We assumed they scanned the words on the page. However, DoubleVerify’s COO says they actually just scan the URL

"In fact, DV’s keyword service scans the URL, which serves as a proxy for the content title, and is not comparing keyword blocklists with the content on the page."

Not even scanning the content? That means anyone can launch PRETEND NEWS [dot com], populate it with fake content and create the slug (/there-is-definitely-no-bad-stuff-here) and be in business? 

How are marketers supposed to know that? 

This is not “brand safety”

Finally, there is a pervasive myth we hope to address now and in future editions of BRANDED: that brands must not appear next to sad, bad or controversial news. Can anyone explain this one to us? There is no evidence that suggests anyone will believe you are pro-coronavirus because your brand appeared on an article about coronavirus. 

It will not cause a consumer boycott. It will not cause anyone to blink an eye. An unfortunate ad placement is nowhere in the same league as funding fake news, disinformation or hate speech online.

The industry-wide ban on “coronavirus” needs to end.

What you can do: 

  1. Demand to see your site list, the list of websites where your ads have been placed. Make sure this is undoctored. 

  2. Demand to see the keyword blocklist that your ad agency is using. Make sure “coronavirus” is not on the list. 

  3. Start to talk to your team about which trusted news sources you want to advertise with. An allow list will ensure that your marketing budgets continue to associate your brand with strong, trustworthy publishers. 

To find out if you are blacklisting these words, check with your agency or vendor. If you want to continue funding legitimate news sources, make sure to add legitimate news sites to your “allow list” or “whitelist.” 

Thanks for reading! 

Nandini and Claire 

P.S. Valor Digital CEO David Nyrenberg recently called digital advertising a “dumpster fire” and called for it to look like TV advertising. We are grateful for it (and for the shout out to BRANDED). Read it here.


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