Brand Safety In A World Of Fake News

This is the first part of a series on effectively communicating your message and protecting your brand in the changing media landscape.

Fake and incendiary news has become an industry unto itself. There are a broad spectrum of sites that fall into these categories: fake clones of major news sites (e.g. ) to hyper-partisan, exaggerated, and incendiary websites. With stories on these sites generating more engagement and thousands of dollars of ad revenue per day as a result, it becomes important to ask yourself as an advertiser: who is footing the bill? Could it be my media buy? And how do I make sure it isn’t?

There are, in fact, advertisers whose brands align with hyper-partisan content and fake news to legitimately prop up these publications. But a major source of funding is inadvertent advertising from brands who, if asked explicitly, would never want to be associated with these sites.

Ad networks and brands already have taken a stand against publishers such as Breitbart. Other brands have raised legitimate concerns about YouTube and appearing next to unfavorable content. But all this exposure is often accidental. Otherwise effective digital ad buying tactics such as remarketing, behavioral, and demographic targeting can place ads on these types of sites if the proper controls are not put in place.

At BPI, while we firmly believe in a “people not places” approach — we want to reach our audience wherever they are consuming information online — we also put in controls to make sure we don’t place ads on fraudulent sites, fake news or sites that would offend the brand paying for the placements.

We know that at a basic level, advertising should do no harm. And while it is not feasible for organizations only to place ads alongside content that perfectly aligns with their worldview, it is important to make sure brands aren’t sponsoring the development of content that is offensive, inappropriate, or wholly contrary to their image.

To ensure effective brand safety guardrails on our targeted advertising buys, we partnered with Moat. Moat is a leading independent digital measurement company and we leveraged their tracking products to drive the research below to better understand the nature and scope of brands advertising on these sites and how to avoid them[i]. Here’s what our research uncovered:

Data Source: Moat
  • There is a broad network of advertisers propping these sites up: Over 3,100 unique brands advertised on fake or incendiary news sites in 2017 alone.
  • Top brands are some of the most prolific advertisers: 58% of Fortune 100 companies appeared on at least one of these sites.
  • This isn’t the case of a single ad slipping by: The average Fortune 100 company appeared on 15 fake or incendiary news sites — and some on as many as 44 different sites with over 1,000 unique ads!
  • Finance, technology and auto brands bought the most ads: Controlling as much as 7% share-of-voice across all sites.

If these points scare you, don’t let them. This is a solvable problem. Advertisers can stem the flow of fake news by choking off ad dollars or simply choose to be more diligent on how their paid dollars are being spent. Companies have been concerned about brand safety and worked to verify where ads are displayed since the earliest days of digital and TV advertising. But to do so in today’s changing media landscape, requires a thoughtful framework and attention to detail when placing ad buys:

  • Establish a principled approach: Every ad campaign should have a clear framework for evaluating inventory quality and brand safety. What is perfectly acceptable for a travel company may be wholly inappropriate for a more family-focused brand.
  • Block the bad stuff: At BPI, we maintain lists of unacceptable sites based on general brand safety, bot traffic, viewability, and fake news. And even on acceptable sites, there are certain types or themes of content we want to protect our clients from showing ads next to.
  • Demand transparency: You should know where your ads are running. Not every ad needs to be on the front page of the New York Times — frequency and repetition are critical to making a message stick — and we want to reach people whether they are visiting top tier news or dinner recipes. But if a publisher won’t tell you where you ads appear, they are probably hiding something.
  • Constant vigilance! New sites spring up every day and there is always the chance something might slip by. Make sure your advertising infrastructure is set up to regularly scan for potentially troublesome content.

Want to learn if your organization is footing the bill for fake news and how to better protect your brand? Feel free to drop us a line.

Mike Schneider is a Managing Director at Bully Pulpit Interactive.

[i] Classifying “fake, incendiary, and hyper-partisan” sites is of course a complex issue. We used the list that powers Indiana University’s Hoaxy project, though excluded The Onion due to its intentional and well-known satire.