Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it).
Here’s what’s new with us this week:
Hey, it’s Nandini here.
Last week, I got white nationalist Stefan Molyneux suspended from popular streaming service SoundCloud. It took hours of research, months of back-and-forths with their team, jumping through multiple hoops, and finally a direct appeal to the company’s founder (Until then, Molyneux was protected by an inconsistently applied “three-strike policy”).
This may alarm those who believe a Nazi’s right to Venmo is somehow inextricably linked to freedom of speech. It’s weird how, in this ongoing online freedom of speech debate, we always end up centering the conversation around the most destructive, hateful people that society has to offer. This man radicalized a mass shooter.
While I have to fight to get tech platforms to take the very real threat of alt-right figures seriously, most of us don’t realize that those same platforms are by default locking out LGBTQ voices.
Let us direct your attention to Salty, a queer-focused media outlet that adtech companies have refused to work with.
We spoke to Claire Fitzsimmons, who founded Salty as an alternative to mainstream “girlboss” media companies that center straight, cis white women.
Fitzsimmons - who identifies as a non-binary queer person and ally - is building a media hub to amplify and empower the voices of women, trans, and non-binary people. “We publish a lot of stories that you would never see on Refinery29 or Bustle or Vice,” they said.
But this is no zine. Fitzsimmons is ambitious, with a big vision for Salty. They see Salty rivaling the reach and success of Refinery29, but as a community-driven outlet without the racist and toxic workplace culture.
Salty is well on its way. Since its founding in 2018, the community has grown to over 50,000 people. Fitzsimmons and their team support the business primarily through a subscription revenue model and have been in talks with major international brands.
But there’s just one problem: no one will supply the adtech.
Fitzsimmons and their team have been rejected from nearly every adtech platform they’ve applied to. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of companies that have closed the door on them, with no explanation:
Our good friends at Criteo, who have monetized everything from 4chan to The Gateway Pundit, determined that “a direct integration with us would not be a good fit for [Salty’s] monetization needs.”
In June, MediaVine launched the We Stand With You campaign to show their commitment to supporting marginalized groups. They wrote this:
“We have expanded our lens to make sure we are creating a completely inclusive environment where all employees and publishers (existing or potential) feel welcome, included, properly represented and able to show up as their full selves.
To that end, we’ve been looking into ways to support the LGBTQIA+ community. Internally, we’ve been having discussions about how to better serve this community as well as provide a safe space to employees where they can talk about their experiences.”
But that doesn’t seem to apply to Salty, which was given a blanket rejection. “We are not provided with details; it’s just a simple approval or rejection, so we can’t provide more insight. I’m sorry about that,” they said.
Google, one of the largest ad exchanges, enables practically any website to run ads using its AdSense technology platform. AdSense has “community standards” and rules for using Google’s tech to sell ads. But sites like The Gateway Pundit, The Federalist, Breitbart, OANN, RT.com (formerly Russia Today), American Thinker, and hundreds of others are still monetizing through Google’s platform.
Every single one of these sites has been determined by NewsGuard to “severely violate basic journalistic standards” because they “repeatedly publish false content, use deceptive headlines, obscure ownership and sources of financing, etc.”
Google enables all of these sites to make money but will not work with Salty because sometimes the articles talk about sex, dating, and trans bodies.
Fitzsimmons says they have also been rejected from MediaMath and The She Network.
Salty has found advertising partners that would like to place ads — if they could. However, the advertisers still require Salty to have Google’s infrastructure for a direct advertising deal to go through.
“It’s the easiest commercial transaction. I don't understand why that’s so difficult. It makes first party ad sales almost impossible for us,” says Fitzsimmons.
This really only leaves one option: Salty has to put their limited resources towards building direct relationships with brands. For the community-focused business Fitzsimmons wants to build, direct partnerships are the best for Salty anyway. But these things take time, and they don’t get the ongoing cashflow that other media outlets enjoy.
“There’s an interconnection between all these different platforms that are working together to silence voices and publications like ours,” says Fitzsimmons.
Salty is a media empire waiting to happen. The pieces are all in place. Fitzsimmons is a fearless and visionary leader. Salty’s team is packed with top creative directors from Condé Nast, Vice, Bustle and The Atlantic. They have partnership packages and a media kit ready to go.
“We could even make the ads. We could be a full service agency,” says Fitzsimmons.
Salty is building a powerful community of engaged, interested readers and contributors. Their content is fresh and unique. They are leaders in a growing movement about beauty, strength, and identity. If your brand covers those topics, it’s exactly the kind of place you want to be: with a smart and plugged-in audience drawn together by shared values and community.
We hate to bring this up again, because Salty is an inspiration and it feels weird to put them in the same conversation as Stefan Molyneux, but let us make this last point:
Until random readers flag white supremacists on tech platforms, they can monetize without raising flags from ad tech, payment platforms, and email clients. These tech platforms let eugenics enthusiasts make money and spread hate but they block Salty, a legitimate media hub for women, trans, and non-binary people.
So, what can marketers do?
Thanks for reading,
Nandini and Claire