Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation.
Here’s what’s new with us:
UPDATE (4/22/22): Unruly has dropped the Performance One Media account in this piece. However, they continue to partner with the company through other seller accounts. Details here.
A lot of people at Real America’s Voice talked about The National Butterfly Center before it shut down in February.
Take for example, Real America’s Voice contributor Ben Bergquam, who claimed he was there to “stand against the cartels trafficking children through the Butterfly Center.”
Or frequent Real America’s Voice guest Brian Kolfage, who accused The Butterfly Sanctuary of participating in a “rampant sex trade” and has since pled guilty to federal charges to wire fraud conspiracy around the ‘We Build The Wall’ campaign.
And of course, the feather in Real America’s Voice cap: Steve Bannon himself.
For years, Bannon and his friends promoted a QAnon conspiracy theory that claims The National Butterfly Center is a front for a human trafficking ring. They were very successful. The butterfly center received threats via phone, email, and Twitter. People would come by demanding they stop “raping children.”
A congressional candidate came in and demanded access to the nearby river “to see all the illegals crossing on the raft” — and tackled Marianna Treviño-Wright, the center’s director, when asked to leave. The candidate then tried to run her son over with her car.
However, no investigation of a human trafficking ring at the National Butterfly Sanctuary has ever been opened by the police. That is because claims that the center is run by “left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda” is a complete lie circulated online by Bannon and his friends in order to promote their We Build The Wall campaign. The campaign was ultimately proven to be a money laundering scheme.
This obvious case of targeted harassment and defamation should be enough evidence for any ad exchange to drop the outlet from its inventory. But ad exchanges aren’t cutting off the malignant outlet just yet. Rather, they appear to be obfuscating their partnership with Real America's Voice.
In today’s BRANDED, we explore how one ad exchange, Unruly, is muddling its ties to Bannon by making advertisers believe they're monetizing...a weather station.
Bannon has been persona non grata in the advertising industry since 2016.
But what if he could sneak in somehow, wedged between weather, the great outdoors and a shopping channel? Perhaps under a distribution partner with a non-descript name like “Performance One Media”? No way the advertisers will ever catch on.
Only in the adtech industry — where no one looks too deeply into anything — could this cockamamie plot straight out of Pinky and the Brain actually work. And it does.
According to a January 2022 story in The Washington Post, the CEO of Performance One Media, Robert J. Sigg, sought out Bannon when he launched War Room, and made him a proposition: How about Bannon run his show through Performance One Media and his company would handle the business side of things for him?
Sigg had already made his fortune off two channels — Weather Nation and Pursuit — and partnering with Bannon would help to expand his own media empire. He also had existing industry relationships in place help Bannon’s show go national overnight.
Performance One Media owns and operates four outlets, each with its own audience and vacuous tagline. No one would ever know that one of these things is not like the other:
Today, Performance One Media supports Bannon into two major ways: distribution and revenues.
First, they package up this network of media outlets and ink distribution deals across the digital and OTT space, including Dish, Pluto TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV and Google Play. This brings Real America’s Voice to 8 million households across America.
Performance One Media also shops their network around to the biggest advertising agencies in the world, betting that the media buyers will never dig beneath the surface of this anodyne description of Real America’s Voice:
Real America’s Voice is a media solutions firm that enables Content Providers, Agencies and Advertisers to leverage our 130 years of combined media expertise to deliver the country’s first audience-driven news platform! Our Creative Services, Video Production, Content Delivery, Media Buying and Broadcast Studio teams have been delivering impactful messaging to multi-screen, multi-cultural and multi-platform audiences for over 15 years.
In other words, they hide Bannon in the trunk…and drive right in. The advertisers don’t ever find out they’re doing business with Steve Bannon until it’s too late.
GoDaddy, GoodRX and Norton Lifelock are among the brands that learned last year that their ads were running on War Room…through a tweet.
Global advertising agencies Horizon and Havas had once approved Performance One Media for advertising partnerships. Both told us they ended their relationship with Performance One Media after we wrote about it.
What have we learned from all this? It’s never worth the risk to partner with a company that partners with Steve Bannon. The advertising agencies get that now. But the ad exchanges don’t.
Ad exchanges like Unruly don’t tend to talk about which websites they monetize. But we can still track their relationships through their sellers.json directories, a public ledger that tells advertisers the outlets and entities that are in their inventory.
On April 5th, we shared that Unruly’s sellers.json directory (https://video.unrulymedia.com/sellers.json) showed that they were monetizing Real America’s Voice (americasvoice.news). Within 24 hours, Unruly’s entry had mysteriously been modified to “weathernation.tv.”
This is what it looked like:
Does this change mean that Unruly stopped serving ads on Real America’s Voice and started serving ads on Weather Nation? Or does it mean that we watched a real-time attempt to hide its relationship with Real America’s Voice by swapping in one of Performance One Media’s brand safe outlets?
To us, it looks like a sloppy cover up. WeatherNation.TV’s ads.txt file — the publisher’s list of ad exchanges authorized to sell its inventory — has no mention of Unruly. This means there is no relationship between Unruly and Weather Nation. The only website Unruly has a relationship with is Real America’s Voice.
Unruly likes to talk about Unruly Shield, a gaggle of qualifications and certifications they use to prove they're on the cutting edge of brand safety:
But none of this protects advertisers from Unruly misrepresenting its own inventory to them.
We don’t know what the mysterious change in Unruly’s sellers.json directory means. But it strongly suggests to us that Weather Nation has a key role in covering up the cash pipeline to Bannon — not just for Performance One Media but for ad exchanges too.
So what's the answer? Is Weather Nation propping up War Room? Is War Room propping up Weather Nation? Both are very possible.
In the same Washington Post piece, some Performance One Media employees acknowledged that Weather Nation might be “propping up” Bannon’s show:
"Current and former Real America’s Voice employees said they had little insight into whether the network was profitable or being propped up by the company’s weather programming. Serrano said that and other matters were “proprietary."
Others believed it could be the other way around:
“If the network is making money, it’s because of Bannon’s show, current and former employees said. “It’s not even close in terms of the advertising money he brings in,” a former employee said.“Even election coverage was below Bannon.”
Either way, Bannon confirms that he is getting paid and is very happy with the arrangement. “They get it out everywhere,” he told the Post, which noted that Performance One Media “gives him a cut of advertising revenue.”
And that’s how we know something fishy is happening here. Nobody wants their ad dollars going to Bannon. It looks like Performance One Media has worked out a foolproof business plan. Sure, an ad exchange might block Real America’s Voice, but who would ever block Weather Nation?
If ever there were a place to pool money from networks of sketchy outlets, the adtech supply chain would be the place to do it.
We don't know exactly what the relationship is between Real America’s Voice and Weather Nation, or how the advertising pipelines might be set up behind the scenes.
But odds are high that there is a synergistic relationship — and that this relationship is creating new opportunities for both parties to continue creating and profiting from propaganda.
More than two years later, the arrangement has paid off for both men. Sigg used “War Room” as a springboard for an expanded network of conservative hosts — bringing him the commercial opportunity he sought,” notes Washington Post reporter Isaac Stanley-Becker.
The arrangement also bypasses all the usual brand safety filters. That DoubleVerify algorithm isn't going to tell you that Performance One Media is using Weather Nation as a decoy to prop up the rest of its toxic content.
This means it’s not enough to block Real America’s Voice’s domain. To protect advertisers, ad exchanges must drop Performance One Media as a seller altogether.
After all, brand safety isn’t just a matter of blocking your ads from appearing next to toxic content. It’s about stopping the flow of ad dollars to people who make money off violent insurrections, like Steve Bannon.
To date, this is a list of the ad exchanges that have dropped Performance One Media (thank you!):
These are some of the ones that haven’t:
Unruly (Seller ID: 1173829879)
AppNexus/Xandr (Seller ID: 12534)
Atlas5 (Seller ID: 2317)
Beachfront (Seller ID: 14717)
Engine Media (Seller ID: 2328)
Freewheel (Note: Freewheel has blocked Real America’s Voice, but is still carrying Performance One Media)
PixFuture (Seller ID: 5tpki-pw6zy)
Pubmatic (Seller IDs: 160495, 160553)
Smaato (Seller ID:1100048519)
Telaria (Seller ID: 5tpki-pw6zy)
Verve Group/LKQD (Seller ID: 655)
Performance One Media is the last lifeline for Bannon. He depends on it for money, exposure and influence. The adtech industry needs to pull the plug on him or find themselves running their clients' ads on the next violent insurrection.
Claire and Nandini