Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation.
Here’s what’s new with us:
The launch of Check My Ads Institute has freaked out a lot of people, but none more than the current focus of its work: Dan Bongino.
His influential disinformation outlet has just one play in its playbook: producing fake “news” stories to create real outrage. Bongino, whose talent is barking loose conspiracy theories with unflinching eye-contact at the camera, has become the biggest purveyor of election disinformation, climate change denial, and anti-vaxx rhetoric.
But since September, Bongino’s team has taken that strategy in a bold new direction: bullying and threatening their own advertisers into not leaving them.
For two months now, as we’ve done our usual work to let advertisers know when they’re funding hate and disinformation, Bongino has started a campaign of his own: calling on his followers to mob the brands’ social media teams with abusive messages and threats.
We haven’t seen a full-throated attack on advertisers like this since Breitbart launched an ill-fated campaign to boycott Kellogg’s in 2016. It did not end well for them — and well, Bongino has lost at least half a dozen ad exchanges and national advertisers over the last few weeks.
This latest effort is so full of fake information, it has put us all on a spaceship and taken us to an entirely different planet.
As Bongino and his gang of harassers follow advertisers around the internet, we will be exploring the rich universe behind this tweet in today’s BRANDED — and why the advertising industry’s current definition of brand safety is utterly unequipped to handle someone like Bongino.
Every disinformation narrative has a villain — and this one has two.
Over Labor Day weekend, Warby Parker confirmed to us they would no longer be advertising on The Daily Wire, after we found their ads sitting below a headline supporting the Texas abortion ban.
Bongino saw this tweet and used it to start a shitstorm.
“Ben Shapiro supports life and not terminating infants in the womb when it has a heartbeat, and that doesn’t work for you? So we’re not welcome,” he surmised.
That day, Bongino also launched what would become a juicy unending soap opera about “Nardini the crazy cat lady… with 7 or 8 cats” and that Warby Parker was “colluding” with a woman (Nandini) who “colludes” with anti-Semites (??).
“I expect you to call Warby Parker if you can today please, email them and let them know they’re working with a woman who gives shout outs to anti-Semites, anti-Asians and trans-a-phobes…” said Bongino.
His followers understood the assignment. In the following weeks, they flooded Warby Parker employees with horrific abuse across its customer-facing channels, prompting one customer support rep to say:
This was a warning shot to Warby Parker and all other brands who might dare to cross him or his friends: leave us and I’ll hurt you and everyone you employ.
The next day, as expected, he seeded a new target: “We’ll see what Zenni Optical does. We’ll make a campaign out of Zenni Optical too, if they decide to comply with Nardini.”
Bongino could pick a new advertiser to bully every day, but building a narrative around a woman on the internet allows for unlimited creative possibilities.
Bongino has since expanded his attack surface to include Nandini, workshopping his messaging on his show and social media.
He has called Nandini…
He knows what he’s doing. Lies and bullying have helped make him a regular on Facebook’s Top 10, the pages with the highest performing posts on the platform.
After first railing at advertisers and then tweeting daily about Nandini, Bongino finally merged narratives on his show: Is Ford Motors Working With George Soros? In a companion piece on his website, a staff writer added:
If conservatives want to win the “cancel culture” battle, they must stop purchasing from corporations that hate them and are willing to sell them out to calm dozens of crazies on twitter. If they’re willing to cancel us, we must cancel them back. Last month Dan cancelled one sponsor of his radio show that fell for an Antifa hoax inspired by Loder and Nandini – and the rest of us should do the same.
Well, that certainly is one way to describe brand safety.
Bongino claims to speak for — and fight for — millions of conservative Americans, who consumers brands need to reach. But what is the value of this influence when he’s willing to turn on his advertisers?
When SimpliSafe confirmed they would remove their ads from The Post Millennial, Bongino announced he would be dropping SimpliSafe as an affiliate partner. "If you don't support free speech, get out. I'm not interested at all,” he said. “Cancel culture goes both ways.”
The “story” was covered by American Thinker (a white nationalist site), WND (a disinformation outlet that Google demonetized last week) and Gateway Pundit (another disinfo outlet that was demonetized by Google last month).
Bongino and his pals have continued triangulating through a cross-channel, cross-linked effort, hoping something sticks.
Fellow inciter of the January 6th insurrection Steve Bannon has said the purpose of “flooding the zone with shit” is to keep people from being able to focus and act. Bongino and co. are masters of this.
While advertisers have entrusted brand safety to companies that are scanning words on a page, these guys are building out networked disinformation campaigns across social media platforms, and then linking to each other as if they are news.
This should tell you everything you need to know: brand safety isn’t about your ad appearing next to uncomfortable content. It’s about the impact an ad buy has on public safety, our communities and employees.
There truly is no bottom here. When the name of your game is saying anything to rev up your audience and bring in the ad bucks, even brands are no longer safe.
So the buck may finally have to stop here. As Bongino's team use their single item playbook, it might be time to let them finally drive themselves into the ground.
Thanks for reading,
Nandini and Claire
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