The unintended consequences of trying to do the right thing
Unintended consequences, huh? We wanted to stop funding hate sites. The technology we used to do it ended up strangling the free press. How did we get here – and where does a liberal lobby group fit into the picture?
Cautious advertisers are blacklisting newsbrand sites because they keep on doing their job reporting the news about coronavirus. Apparently, they don’t want their ads to run next to ‘negative content’, believing that the bad vibes from the news will somehow leach into the ads next door.
This is, of course, nonsense. Placing your ads next to corona-content is exactly what smart advertisers should be doing. As reported today in Marketing Week, ads adjacent to coronavirus stories get much more attention than usual. In fact, a hard news context may aid in the reception of brand messages.
How did we come to this pass? Step forward Sleeping Giants, the liberal pressure group that lobbies brands to stop funding hate speech. They are famous for calling out big brands who, thanks to the wonders of open market RTB, accidentally advertise on Breitbart and other hate sites. The bad publicity generated by these programmatic missteps may have shortened the careers of the marketers who designed and oversaw the systems.
The response to this campaign from many brands has been disappointing. Instead of redirecting investment towards direct purchases from quality publishers, many marketing decisionmakers have opted instead to carry on with open-market buys but blacklist any page that contains ‘controversial’ terms. This list probably started off small and included a lot of words that wouldn’t get through your average email filter. But it has grown and metastasized over time, leading the industry down Bob’s Lane.
Donald Trump’s a bit controversial, isn’t he? Best not advertise next to stories about him. Brexit’s a minefield. Add it to the list. Manchester bombing? Let’s avoid both words, just in case. It’s just not worth taking the risk. And so middle managers don’t take the risk – and ads don’t get placed on reputable newsbrand sites that write about any of these important issues. As Nandini Jammi, one of the founders of Sleeping Giants, put it in a recent blogpost, this was never the intention, but it has become a reality none the less.
This isn’t just a problem for the big news sites. Jerry Daykin at GSK has been doing excellent work challenging the latent homophobia that leads to gay news sites being blacklisted for being ‘controversial’ in the same way.
And it isn’t just a problem in terms of what sites get blocked – it also impacts what sites and key words get positively targeted. The prejudices of what advertisers and their agencies think their audiences might be interested in influence the terms that they target. Men? They like football, don’t they? Women? They’re into babies. Let’s use these ‘personas’ to construct lists of terms that we will serve ads next to – and ditch the rest. This is how structural sexism happens, by the way.
It doesn’t have to work like this. We don’t have to use such blunt tools with such negative side effects. We could choose to do the right thing – for our customers, our brands, and ultimately, our careers. Sleeping Giants didn’t create this mess. Our own laziness and cowardice did. But because we caused it, we can choose to end it too.