Today’s BRANDED is a collaboration with Popular Information. Read Judd Legum’s investigation into OpenWeb here.
Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).
Here’s what’s new with us (a lot - we’ve been busy!):
If you’re not paying close attention, Daily Wire looks like just a conservative news outlet with a mouthy host. With Ben Shapiro at the helm, a Harvard man who just wants to have a nice, healthy debate with America using his SAT words, Daily Wire seems like a good place to hear “the other side” of the political spectrum.
It’s easy to forget that just five years ago, Shapiro was Editor-at-Large of Breitbart, the outlet that 4,000 advertisers permanently fled in the months after the 2016 U.S. elections. He left the outlet in March 2016 — well before Election Day — leaving behind associations with Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and others who would become toxic to brands in the coming years.
He quickly moved on, creating his own brand of alt-right bigotry with the plastic sheen of Ivy League respectability. Today, Daily Wire has become the 7th most popular publisher on Facebook, with more Facebook engagement on its articles than The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News and CNN combined.
Like Breitbart, it produces little original reporting. It runs a ring of inauthentic coordinated activity on Facebook to artificially boost engagement, engages in the same outrage tactics, elevates the same hateful narratives, and promotes the same universe of bad faith actors that made Breitbart dangerous for advertisers.
But while the advertising industry considers Breitbart universally brand unsafe, Daily Wire enjoys relationships with the very ad exchanges that place a premium on brand safety.
In today’s BRANDED, we’re teaming up with Popular Info to explore the outlet that at least two exchanges — comments section software OpenWeb and email monetization platform LiveIntent — have deemed brand safe.
From a distance, Ben Shapiro does look kind of like the reasonable one. In July, Shapiro tweeted “Get vaxxed. I did. My wife did. My parents did.” The Atlantic seemed surprised. U ok, Ben?
He continued, “But public policy that now focuses on broadscale masking and/or lockdowns of those who are vaccinated — or forcing small children to mask — is simply a power grab at this point.” Ahh, there it is.
When President Biden announced a national public health mandate last month, Shapiro went on Fox & Friends to announce he was assembling a legal team that would challenge the President’s “tyrannical” mandate. “It's not just tyrannical, it is dictatorial in extremis. It is amazingly dictatorial,” he yapped furiously on The Ben Shapiro Show.
Daily Wire fired up a Facebook ad campaign urging its readers to defy the measures, calling them “one of the most tyrannical overreaches of government power” they had ever seen.
Wow, sounds scary! Except there is no vaccine tyranny. The new Biden administration mandate only requires that businesses with 100+ employees have them either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. This seems… fine?
But Daily Wire’s peanut gallery was cranking up a frenzied multi-channel marketing campaign anyway. Candace Owens, who hosts her own Daily Wire show “Candace,” called vaccines “pure evil” and instructed followers to not wear a mask.
Matt Walsh, who has a Daily Wire column and no doubt some kind of quota to meet, went to Nashville’s school board meeting in August where he compared the school district’s mask mandate to child abuse, muzzling rabid dogs and Munchausen syndrome.
“COVID poses almost no risk to our kids at all,” he said in his rant, which he posted to YouTube as “Matt Walsh CONFRONTS School Board Over Mask Mandate” — along with discount code “YOUTUBE” for 20% off a Daily Wire membership.
No to masks, no to vaccines, no to any kind of coordinated public health response... What exactly does this basket of rage muppets want us to do to combat a pandemic?
There’s only one action item at the end of this funnel: Pull out your credit card as you sweat with rage and enter the promo code “DO NOT COMPLY” to enjoy a 25% discount on Daily Wire when you sign up today.
When the Daily Wire Goon Squad isn’t whining about the tyranny of the vaccine, they keep themselves busy with the transgender beat — which they have no problem with as long as they are not children (“child abuse”), athletes (“unfair advantage”) or anybody who doesn’t identify with their biological sex (all transgender people).
“If you’re 25 and you want to get a sex change surgery and you feel like it’s gonna make you feel better, you have the right to do it… if it works for you, it’s a free country,” says Shapiro, sounding kind of reasonable there.
“But I’m very much in favor of banning gender transition for kids. It’s frankly evil.” Oh boy, here we go again.
In his video series, Debunked: Transgender Ideology, Shapiro explains to his audience that identifying as transgender is a “serious and tragic disorder.”
“None of this means that anybody suffering from gender dysphoria ought to be mistreated. Anyone with any sort of disorder ought to be treated with nothing but sympathy and care,” he adds.
It’s from this place of love and care that Daily Wire obsessively follows around Laurel Hubbard, the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Olympics, like a middle school bully.
Hubbard is a recurring motif in Daily Wire’s newsletter campaigns, which earns daily revenues through LiveIntent. Owens, who argues that transgender people have a ‘mental disorder’ uses Hubbard’s face to promote her show about “the dangers of transgender ideology.”
Two weeks ago, Matt Walsh showed up to another school board meeting — this time renting a temporary home for $1 in Loudoun County, Virginia — to protest school protections for trans students.
The final product, a YouTube video “Matt Walsh CONFRONTS Loudoun County School Board: "You are all CHILD ABUSERS," shows Walsh himself calling the audience “deranged” and “predators” — along with an offer for 15% off your new Daily Wire membership.
The incident prompted Loudoun County Public Schools to change their public participation rules. Who can blame them?
Folks, Daily Wire is actually having a great time.
Media rating outfit AdFontes Media has given Daily Wire a “mixed reliability” score as a news outlet. Newsguard has given it a 69.5/100 and a big old green check mark. These ratings organizations have formed a force field around Daily Wire, protecting them from the same rapid exodus of advertisers that Breitbart once experienced.
And yet, it’s so clear that the issue here isn’t bias or reliability at all. Riling up people to not wear masks and insisting that transgender people are just confused, is not what news outlets do. This is a marketing funnel. Its success is rooted in promoting harmful disinformation in the service of a singular KPI: to grow an army of petulant, abusive (paying) subscribers who will descend like vultures on command.
Last month, Daily Wire fans swarmed Warby Parker’s customer support team with thousands of violent messages and phone calls after the company confirmed they would block their ads from the outlet.
It was a painful reminder that there’s more at stake here than keeping your ads away from hate speech on the internet. Brand safety is about actual safety, IRL.
That leaves us with just one question.
OpenWeb claims it is “solving the toxicity crisis.”
LiveIntent claims its mission is “to promote an inclusive global community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer employees, customers, and allies.” We strive to affirm LGBTQ+ identity, build a community, and cultivate equity at LiveIntent and beyond!”
How do you do that when you’re in business with Daily Wire… and where do they think they’ll draw the line?
Nandini and Claire
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