An improving tone in news and current affairs around COVID-19 is prompting some brands to return to advertising in news, according to one ad agency leader.

In March, many brands began using brand safety tools’ keyword blacklisting features to dodge ad inventory adjacent to coronavirus news, or simply pulled out of news altogether, fearing that association with downbeat stories would harm their brand.

But Bill Koenigsberg, CEO and Founder of Horizon Media, the largest independent media agency in the U.S., says things are improving.

“Early on in the first two weeks, when the predictions were out there with potentially a million people dying … marketers were very careful to stay out of that environment,” he says in this video interview with Beet.TV.

“The news is slowly getting better and a little bit more optimistic, you’re seeing more and more marketers gravitate back into the news environments.”

Returning to news

US virus deaths were 85,197 at time of writing, but the last few weeks have seen fewer daily deaths and a growing proportion of coronavirus patients recovering, according to statistics.

The whole episode has forced brands – and their agencies – to think on their feet.

“I think it took a couple of weeks for certain clients to realize they’ve got to change their messaging,” Koenigsberg says. “Now you have seen so much more supportive, caring, purposeful messaging out in the marketplace from a tonality standpoint.

“We have told our entire brand strategy teams and activation teams, ‘we’ve got to scrutinise every piece of creative that goes on the air to make sure that there cannot be any backlash from the tonality and the content within the messaging out there’.”

Koenigsberg says some marketers, early in the pandemic, got their creative messaging “tone-deaf”, but quickly improved to match the times.

Disconnected sentiment

Although Koenigsberg says marketers are coming back to news because the news is getting more positive, some studies show they need not have swerved news in the first place.

Results of a survey from March by Integral Ad Science (IAS) show:

  • 58% of users were actively seeking out coronavirus news.
  • 78% said their sentiment toward a brand placed in coronavirus news remained unchanged.
  • But consumers believe the suitability of that placement depends on the brand.
  • They have greater demand for messaging from health, pharmaceutical and government communicators.
  • Travel and food-and-beverage ads are the biggest turn-offs for consumers.

In a follow-up study in April, IAS found:

  • Aa 12% growth in consumers seeking out coronavirus content online
  • 75% of consumers were actively seeking out news online, that’s 16% up from March, a huge jump.
  • And there was a 27% growth in consumers actively seeking out news content
    due to coronavirus situation.
  • 28% of consumers said they were unlikely to engage with an ad against coronavirus content.
  • But a vast majority said that adjacency would not change their opinion of a brand.

Consumers’ views seem at odds with those of brands. In a March marketer survey from IAS:

  • 61% of marketers said that the coronavirus situation is changing the types of content they are comfortable advertising alongside
  • 49% of marketers said the they would be “concerned” if their ad appeared near coronavirus content online.

This video is part of a series titled Brand Suitability at the Forefront, presented by Integral Ad Science.  For more segments from the series, please visit this page.