Pandemic disinformation is a brand safety disaster waiting to happen.

Ad tech to marketers: “You’re on your own”

UPDATE (May 7, 2020, 10:00pm): Following the publication of this newsletter, MediaMath confirmed with us that they placed The Federalist on their universal blacklist in response to our inquiry. Their response was swift and deliberate, and we thank them for clarifying.


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

On Monday, Amazon VP and Distinguished Engineer at AWS Tim Bray announced he was stepping down in protest of Amazon whistleblower firings.  He called it “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. “I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he said.

Choosing to serve poison feels like a good metaphor for something else we think about a lot: 🚨ad-funded COVID-19 disinformation🚨

For years, ad tech companies have claimed that brand safety is one of their highest priorities. In April 2018, Rubicon Project’s VP of Engineering John Clyman wrote

It’s no wonder many marketers feel anxious about programmatic buys, considering they’re relying on soulless machines and sometimes-opaque algorithms to determine where their brand’s advertising will be showcased. One appearance next to the wrong content can bring a PR disaster, negative associations, and damage to the bottom line. Marketers have even told me they worry that placement on a site with a toxic reputation could cause them to lose their jobs, and put their children’s college education in jeopardy.

At Rubicon Project, marketplace quality and brand safety has always been part of our own brand promise. We’ve built trust with our brand and agency partners who rely on us to provide the highest quality inventory and strong brand protection capabilities. 

If only this claim were accurate. According to a March 2020 report from Global Disinformation Index, Rubicon Project is a Top 5 carrier of coronavirus disinformation.

At a time when people are out in crowds protesting the lockdown, telling our nurses to go back to China, and downing bleach and hydroxychloroquine for good measure, this is serving poison in more ways than one. 

You can’t get more brand unsafe than coronavirus disinformation. So why is ad tech selling it?

Disinformation is still on the shelves

Rubicon Project is not alone in falling short of their brand promise. Most ad tech companies market themselves as having done the basic legwork of brand safety, whether it’s providing you with high-quality inventory, rooting out bad actors, or providing you with the safest possible environment for your brand.

We’re talking about health here, so let us use a metaphor: Ad tech’s collective promise to marketers is that buying ads is brand safe. Shopping with them, let’s say, is like shopping at the grocery store. And it is! If you give up every assumption you have about grocery shopping.

You walk into a grocery store assuming they adhere to basic food safety standards. You assume their employees regularly check on inventory and charge a markup so you don’t have to forage through bags of moldy bagels to find breakfast. 

Now imagine shopping at a grocery store that doesn’t check their inventory and also stocks the shelves with recalled and expired food because they think it’s a “gray area” and who knows, you might want to buy it? 

That’s kind of how the industry as a whole operates when it comes to the biggest threats to your brand’s safety:

The only way a grocery store guarantees their customers aren’t going to buy recalled food is to not carry it.  But in ad tech, disinformation is staying on the shelves. 

Nearly every major ad tech company blacklisted Breitbart after it became a brand safety issue for their customers, but they continue to partner with other sites that peddle the same type of content. In other words, they’re not protecting our brands. If you buy yourself a moldy bag of donuts, that’s on you. If you get sick, that’s on you.

Ad tech companies vet their inventory - and they don’t. They’re all about brand safety - and they aren’t. The claims and contradictions are endless. The people who tell marketers “leave it to us” are the same people who say “make your own blacklists.” 

Marketers are doing our best to have our brands lead right now at a stressful time. So, it’s disappointing for us that our vendors can’t anticipate our needs: We don’t want our brands to be anywhere near COVID disinformation.

It should also go without saying that we are marketers, not disinformation specialists. So, that leaves these questions:

  • Do ad tech companies really expect the average marketer to weed out the daily proliferation of fake news and disinformation?

  • Isn’t that what we pay our ad tech vendors to do? 

There are two ways to fight COVID-19 disinformation: Ensure ads appear on news sites and ensure ads don’t appear on disinformation websites. Ad tech has failed on both counts.

What you need to know

Next ad campaign you run, here are some things you can do to avoid funding disinformation:

  1. Question your media partners. Your agency or vendors don’t always have a full grasp of where your ads are running. Don’t take their word for it - ask for raw data.

  2. Ensure you have access to platform logins. It’s a huge red flag if you don’t own your contracts with platforms and have your own logins. It’s ultimately your responsibility to ensure your brand is running in safe environments. 

  3. Request a domain report. If you have a brand safety vendor on your campaign, ask them for a domain report. This will show you where your ads are running. What you find may surprise you.

That’s it for us this time. See you soon!

Claire and Nandini


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