VIA BEETCAM — The brand safety leader at the world’s biggest media-buying agency is urging advertisers – blacklisting ad inventory against coronavirus news stories could kill newspapers and, with them, democracy.

Last week, Comscore said 22% to 30% of all ad impressions were appearing in coronavirus-related content. Such content is now being widely blacklisted by ad buyers, whose brand safety tools allow them to use keywords to avoid their ads appearing against particular kinds of content. BuzzFeed also reported the scale of the problem.

Even as Comscore offered advertisers a new “epidemic brand safety filter” last week, the IAB and Digital Content Next called on advertisers to cease the practice.

Early in March, a GroupM executive told Digiday: “Less than one third of GroupM’s clients are blocking coronavirus terms, and those that aren’t either don’t advertise against news at all or don’t do a lot of keyword blocking in general”

Bad news is good news

In this video interview with Beet.TV, John Montgomery, EVP of global brand safety for GroupM, says: “Newspapers are a brand-safe environment in the main, they have high viewability, they have low ad fraud …

“Marketers are so worried about their ads being seen adjacent to the news of the virus. But research shows that people are not turned off brands if they see as adjacent to COVID-19 news.

“Integral Ad Science did some research recently that showed that 78% of people are fine with it. There are some exceptions for food and travel and that makes sense.

“Other research shows that the harder the news, the better. So, research does not support the current marketer concerns.”

Death of newspapers

Advertisers behavior runs contrary to the audience pattern. News site traffic is spiking up for many publishers.

Even so, the crisis is pushing some newspapers, many of which have been teetering on the brink for years, to the brink of extinction, challenged by inability to print and deliver and by consumers’ inability to get out and buy. Several newspapers and alt-weeklies have announced pay cuts and layoffs, with some shutting down operations altogether, The Hill reports.

Montgomery is worried. “Whilst big media are suffering, it’s a crisis for local news,” he says. “Many of them are not going to get through this.

“This news needs ad revenue. It’s vital at this time to include newspapers and especially local papers on media schedules. Without it, I think we’re in grave danger. This isn’t just about keeping newspapers alive, it’s about free speech and democracy that literally depends on it.”

Closing newspapers won’t just be democracy’s loss, it will be the advertisers’, Montgomery says.

“The fact is that news is a very effective advertising vehicle,” he adds. “Readers are engaged with the articles that they choose to read. They spend longer reading them. There’s more dwell time and that means a better opportunity for your ads to be seen. But readers also trust their favourite local newspaper and that trust rubs off on advertising.”

Facebook has pledged $100 million in grant money and ad spending to help struggling news outlets, WSJ reports.

Be smart about blocking

GroupM’s global business of business intelligence Brian Wieser recently told Beet.TV brands should aim to be useful during the pandemic.

Montgomery is urging advertisers to think differently.

“If you need to use keyword blocking, don’t use it as a blunt tool,” Montgomery says. “Don’t use exact-match (for) ‘COVID-19’ or ‘coronavirus’ exclusions. Because this is automatically going to demonetize all content that contains these words.

“Instead, use something like exclusions (features) which will reduce the possibility of over-blocking things like ‘COVID-19 death’ or ‘COVID-19 death counts’ or ‘coronavirus death toll’ or ‘COVID-19 miracle cure’ or a combination of those words.

“You can work with your agency or verification provider if you need help with a strategy.

“I would say to the verification providers, although they are following the instructions from agencies and marketers have given those agencies guidance about limiting risk in the news environment, make sure that you educate your clients on how to use keywords as a strategic tool rather than a blunt tool.”

This video is part of Beet.TV’s coverage of brand safety and the use of keyword blocking during the COVID-19 pandemic.  For more videos from the series, please visit this page.