Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it.)
A few updates: This morning, Claire spoke to Matt Galloway of the CBC about keyword blacklisting. Last week, Nandini spoke to Buzzfeed about how adtech companies are making “life-and-death decisions for the news industry.”
Are you writing an article about keyword blacklists? Just get in touch!
Hey folks, Nandini here. As keyword blacklisting “coronavirus” continues to decimate the news industry, I have had the sinking feeling that Sleeping Giants (a campaign which I co-run) has something to do with it.
When Sleeping Giants started tweeting at companies asking them to take their ads off Breitbart, we thought we made it pretty clear why: Breitbart was a media outlet promoting hate speech and bigotry, and advertisers’ dollars were funding it.
What we never imagined was that brands would turn off the tap on all “NEWS & CURRENT EVENTS” too.
Sleeping Giants addresses a real and urgent threat to our society. Unfortunately, its purpose has been co-opted by the advertising industry to sell solutions for an imaginary problem that doesn’t exist at all.
Let me explain.
At Sleeping Giants, our campaign was centered around defunding Breitbart, an outlet collaborating with white nationalists, backed by a billionaire white supremacist, all to promote a white supremacist agenda. Breitbart peddles bigotry and hate speech that is linked to dangerous offline behavior, from doxxing to radicalization. In other words they are a bad faith publisher.
The Sleeping Giants campaign rocked the advertising world. Agencies and vendors received angry phone calls and emails. We imagine there were quite a few “Don’t let this happen again!!” followed by an angry phone slam.
In response, the ad tech world decided that hate speech was “controversial.” If brands don’t want to be on controversial content, they reasoned, they wouldn’t want to be on a lot of other things, either. So they came up with an answer: brands should stay away from all hard news, negative news, breaking news — anything remotely “controversial.”
In this list of “controversial” topics?
According to The Guardian, “blacklists are ballooning in some cases to as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words, blocking ads from many different stories.”
The ad industry started baking brand safety tech into their product offerings. And this has gotten out of control. Take a look at this brand safety infographic from Verizon Media, which suggests that appearing alongside “controversial” content could result in bad media headlines:
Or, these companies, which offer brand safety solutions for no identifiable business reason:
The underlying message: “You don’t want a campaign like Sleeping Giants to get you in trouble? Then buy our stuff.” This interpretation has brought us to a bad place: thousands of brands are no longer advertising with the news for no good reason.
I want to be crystal clear about this:
✅ You DON’T need to worry about getting in trouble for sponsoring bad news. Not with Sleeping Giants, and not with anyone else.
❌ You DO need to worry about sponsoring bad faith publishers like Breitbart, Infowars and The Gateway Pundit — the ones who peddle misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories. See the difference there?
In fact, no matter how you look at it, high-quality news & journalism is actually the best place to be right now.
So far, no ad tech verification company has heeded these calls. That’s disappointing. We recommend the following:
Thanks for reading, see you next time!
Claire and Nandini