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News sites ask ad industry to get comfortable alongside coronavirus-related content

Key Points
  • Online publications are seeing huge jumps in traffic, but many advertisers are blocked from appearing near content mentioning coronavirus. 
  • Large news organizations are calling on advertisers to let their placements show up because that's how they support their journalistic efforts. 
A person wearing a mask passing by Times Square amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 24, 2020 in New York City.
John Nacion | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Even as traffic to news websites has surged of late because of the constant demand for updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, publishers are downsizing their staff and cutting pay due to slumping ad revenue.

One problem the sites are facing is that advertisers are working with ad-tech companies that, in trying to prevent those brands from appearing on particular sites or near certain topics, have prevented promotions from running alongside coronavirus-related content. With the crisis having become the dominant global story, one that's poised to continue for at least the coming months, parts of the news industry face an existential threat if advertisers continue to stay away.

Publishers want the rampant blocking on news to stop. Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, the trade body representing CNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times and other publications, wrote an open letter this week urging certain advertising technology companies including Integral Ad Sciences and DoubleVerify to exempt "premium, trusted media properties" from brand safety filters around COVID-19 and related terms.

Now that the virus has touched virtually every facet of society, ad industry experts argue, there should be no stigma for running ads on stories tied to the pandemic.

Ryan Pauley, chief revenue officer at Vox Media, said the type of content getting flagged includes updates on what people need to know about the health crisis and recommendations for how to support small businesses. 

"There is no brand suitability problem for advertisers being adjacent to this content, in fact quite the opposite," Pauley said in an email. "The fact that a high percentage of articles are being flagged as brand unsafe across premium news outlets like the New York Times or Vox is a misapplication of generic 'brand safety' concerns.'"

Big tech may lose advertising revenue amid coronavirus crisis, analyst says
Big tech may lose advertising revenue amid coronavirus crisis, analyst says

Certain types of ads are still likely to be considered inappropriate. For example, a cruise company wouldn't want to promote deals near a news story about an outbreak on a ship. But stories about everyday life amid the pandemic, if the messaging is respectful, should largely be considered safe for brands. 

"There's obviously a balance advertisers will need to find with the right creative message when advertising in these environments," Pauley said. "But beyond this challenge there is an opportunity for brands to participate, by creating a service-driven, empathetic message that will authentically resonate with audiences where they are more engaged than ever."

What's up with ad blocking

Avid readers of online news from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal have become familiar in recent weeks with blocked ads. Buzzfeed reported this week that one unnamed brand, which typically spends $3 million advertising its products on news and technology sites, saw its ad blocked more than 35 million times across 100 news sites this month. 

If you see an ad unit that looks like a blue sky with clouds, the intermediary doing the blocking is DoubleVerify, a company that says it helps brands ensure "viewable, fraud-free, brand-safe ads." Integral Ad Sciences, another ad verification company, blocks promotions by showing an ad for its own product. The company told CNBC last week that coronavirus is now its most-blocked keyword, surpassing "Trump." 

DoubleVerify blocks an ad on a CNBC story.

Matt McLaughlin, chief operating officer of DoubleVerify, said his company is advising brands to make sure they're supporting trustworthy news sources by allowing ads to run on content mentioning the virus as it becomes "a global reality of daily life." Integral's marketing chief, Tony Marlow, said brands have the ability to control "with precision" where ads do and don't appear.

An example of a blocked ad from IAS on a story about masks.

While they've faced criticism for too aggressively blocking ads on controversial topics, both companies say they encourage brands to support trusted news sites and allow clients to make the decision about which content or sites they want to block.

Jerry Daykin, senior media director of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region for pharmaceutical giant GSK, wrote in ad trade publication "The Drum" that brand safety measures are important to prevent funding hate speech or misinformation, but he said "there really is very little actual brand safety issue on high-quality sites."

During a conference call with the Advertising Research Forum last week, Rick Bruner, CEO of ad software company Central Control, said brands would do well to advertise on the front page of prominent news site, "and just say, we are here to support information and media right now." 

Media agency UM and other ad companies like Amobee are asking clients to contribute ad impressions for public service announcements directing people to the CDC's coronavirus site.

UM's Joshua Lowcock, the firm's global brand safety officer, said COVID-19 has become an unavoidable topic.

"Coronavirus coverage is the new normal," he said. "This is going to have a long-term impact on society. The news coverage will not cease." 

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