Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation. Here’s what’s new with us:
Procter & Gamble is not going to be happy when they find out they’re funding Steve Bannon’s show War Room.
As the world’s biggest advertiser — with an annual marketing spend of around $11B – they have a reputation to protect.
“We have a zero-tolerance standard when it comes to brand safety,” says Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, who once paused a whopping $140M of ad spend over concerns that their ads were funding hate speech and disinformation.
Pritchard, who sees his marketing budget at P&G as an opportunity to be “a force for good,” is not kidding around.
He goes up on stage and says things like “it’s time to grow up” and “the apologies are heartfelt and appreciated, but that’s not good enough” to the adtech industry, shaking his gigantic ad budget at them like a carrot on a stick.
That’s why it’s both tragic and slightly comical that Bannon has so easily slipped past these efforts and has been helping himself to P&G’s ad budget.
This is not your usual brand safety story. We’re not about to tell you that we’ve found P&G ads running on War Room. The ads are not even running on Real America’s Voice, the channel that streams Bannon’s hours-long show.
Rather, P&G commercials for products including Bounty, Gain, and Tide are running on a very different kind of show: a 24/7 streaming weather news channel called WeatherNation. WeatherNation, which is available for free on any connected TV, is a front for Steve Bannon.
In today’s BRANDED, we will show you the creative adtech heist that has allowed Steve Bannon to continue collecting revenue from the world's biggest advertiser.
Today, WeatherNation TV, Inc. and Real America’s Voice, LLC are both headquartered at 13276 E Fremont Place, Centennial, CO 80112. Both channels are owned and operated by Performance One Media, LLC. The building is owned by Robert Sigg, founder of Performance One Media.
But it wasn’t always this way. WeatherNation was originally founded by Paul Douglas, a meteorologist from Minnesota. Douglas founded WeatherNation as an alternative to The Weather Channel. In a 2011 interview for the Washington Post, he said:
“In a 300+ channel world (with nearly a dozen news channels and dozens of sports alternatives) why is there only one option for weather?… At a time when extreme weather is on the rise, we believe Americans should have another viable alternative, one devoted to 24/7 weather coverage, cutting-edge technology, great storytelling, and staff of dedicated on-air meteorologists.”
Douglas was more of a weather nerd than a media executive. So in 2010, he licensed WeatherNation trademarks and brand to Performance One Media, to handle production and distribution. In the Post interview, Douglas confirmed that production was taking place in both Minnesota and Colorado, where Sigg’s company was based.
Then something happened. In June 2014, Performance One Media filed a lawsuit against WeatherNation. Shortly after that, Sigg took over WeatherNation entirely. There is little news coverage on this, and we can only speculate that it was an ugly situation. (Sigg was once convicted for his role in a $19M mortgage-fraud scheme and has also been arrested for a garden variety of drug and violence charges since the ’80s.)
Here’s what we do know, thanks to a March 2015 article from media industry outlet NewsBlues:
The ownership transition at WeatherNation has been murky and largely unreported. NewsBlues recently reviewed a lawsuit, brought by Rob Siggs [sic] management company, Performance One Media, claiming WeatherNation owed it more than a million dollars in "consulting fees." Sometime last summer, ownership of WeatherNation changed hands. The exact disposition of the Siggs lawsuit is unknown. Neither Douglas nor Sigg is talking.
This account is corroborated by a (very poor) Indeed review from a former employee:
Under Sigg’s control, WeatherNation went from being a reputable outlet to… something else entirely. Today, the channel no longer mentions climate change. “They’re conscious of catering to people who don’t want to hear about climate change,” one employee told The Washington Post.
WeatherNation was the primary breadwinner for Performance One Media for many years via a licensing deal with DirectTV. This was, as they say in the business, easy money. However in 2018, DirectTV dropped them from the lineup in favor of another weather channel: Accuweather. (So much weather channel drama!)
This came as a surprise for Sigg, whose spokesperson expressed “shock and dismay” at the decision in a press release. It was also an existential crisis for the company. According to a former employee, Sigg was forced to “accelerate his move to digital platforms and search for other content,” according to the Washington Post.
That content came to him on a silver platter. Around the same time that Sigg lost his DirectTV deal, Bannon was pardoned by President Trump and was setting out to launch his new show War Room on YouTube. Sigg saw dollar signs in his eyes and approached him with a proposition: Why don’t you join me? I’ll do distribution for you.
Sigg launched his new “politics and news” channel Real America’s Voice in 2019 with Bannon as his star. By 2020, Sigg launched Real America’s Voice on Dish, Pluto TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV and Google Play. This brought Bannon into 8 million* American households overnight.
The Washington Post reports:
“They get it out everywhere,” Bannon said of Real America’s Voice, which he said gives him a cut of advertising revenue, though he declined to specify his earnings, saying, “I’m not doing this for money.”
It’s not surprising that Bannon doesn’t want to talk specifics. That would mean giving up the big secret: WeatherNation and Real America’s Voice present themselves as separate companies in order to obtain ad revenues. Behind the scenes, they pool the revenues into a single production house.
In other words, there is fundamentally no difference between running ads on WeatherNation or Real America’s Voice. The outcome is the same.
When we at Check My Ads watched WeatherNation on Roku last week, P&G took up at least half the spots on every commercial break.
The ads were technically up to P&G’s brand safety standards — away from hate, violence and the “abhorrent” behavior that Pritchard and his team reject. But the money from those ads went straight into Steve Bannon’s pockets.
Sigg has carefully designed his media empire to survive the ad industry’s brand safety demands using a simple workaround. The company has obtained advertising accounts under (at least) three separate businesses within the digital advertising supply chain:
They use these accounts interchangeably, as needed. If Real America’s Voice, LLC gets booted from an ad exchange’s inventory after getting called out by Check My Ads, they can continue to monetize the channels under the other two ad accounts.
WeatherNation — with its 24/7 weather coverage — is the linchpin in this operation, acting as a form insurance for the company. Who would have a problem running ads on a weather forecast?
This con has been made possible by ad exchanges, who go along with Performance One Media’s attempts to obfuscate its business operations through the ads.txt protocol. With the help of ad exchanges, Performance One Media uses domains and Seller IDs interchangeably across its properties, making it nearly impossible for P&G to track their ad dollars to Real America’s Voice. (You can read more about the protocol here.)
Here are a few ways P&G’s budget could have traveled to Bannon’s wallet:
In its publisher directory, Pubmatic declares that it serves ads for a website called “p1.media” which is owned by an entity called “performanceone.” If this was accurate, we would see Seller ID 160553 listed on P1.Media’s ads.txt file. Instead, the SellerID is listed on WeatherNationTV.com and AmericasVoice.News. That’s where the ads are actually running.
2. Lemma Technologies hides domain information altogether
Lemma Technologies declares WeatherNation in their inventory but omits the domain (“CONFIDENTIAL”). This means that advertisers know that they’re sending money to a website owned by WeatherNation, but cannot confirm which website. This isn’t helpful when your options here are a weather station or a domestic propaganda operation promoting an insurrection. (They have since dumped the seller account altogether.)
3. Unruly straight up swapped domains
In April, we called out Unruly for serving Real America’s Voice. Within 24 hours, they had performed an interesting brand safety switcheroo: Unruly swapped out America’sVoice.news for the “brand safe” WeatherNationTV.com to make it look like they were no longer working with the Bannon-affiliated operation. However, every Seller ID is registered to one bank account only — the money was still ending up in the same place.
P&G has invested millions into technology designed to skim the surface of the internet. They’ve led the call for increased supply chain transparency and tighter brand safety standards. But once again, Bannon has found a workaround. Advertisers need to look deeper.
The revenues from WeatherNation have helped fuel the commercial success of Real America’s Voice. America’s Voice programming has expanded to include Charlie Kirk (who sent 80 busses to the insurrection), Human Events with Jack Posobiec (the Pizzagate troll) and all the other shows that run completely counter to P&G’s stated values.
The advertising industry has to catch up to the way disinformation operatives are using the supply chain to get their ad dollars. Specifically,
Yahoo, Media.net, and Freewheel have all dropped the seller accounts associated with Real America’s Voice in response to our efforts. But they have not yet dropped accounts belonging to WeatherNation. The flow of money to Bannon and his associates remains uninterrupted until they do.
Thank you for reading!
Nandini and Claire
*Post script note: Previously this article said "This brought Bannon into 50 million American households overnight." It should have said 8 million. We have amended the text.