Like many advertisers, Fidelity Investments wants to avoid advertising online near controversial content. The Boston-based financial-services company has a lengthy blacklist of words it considers off-limits.
If one of those words is in an article’s headline, Fidelity won’t place an ad there. Its list earlier this year, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, contained more than 400 words, including “bomb,” “immigration” and “racism.” Also off-limits: “Trump.”
Some news organizations have had difficulty placing Fidelity’s ads on their sites, ad-sales executives said, because the list is so exhaustive and the terms appear in many news articles.
Big advertisers have been burned several times in recent years when their digital ads appeared next to offensive content, including fabricated news articles, hateful or racist videos on YouTube and pornographic material.
Such miscues happen, in part, because of the complexities of online ad-buying, where brands generally target certain kinds of audiences rather than specific sites or types of content. It has become clear to advertisers that one way to protect themselves is to stipulate the websites or types of web content they want to avoid, and ensure their partners—digital ad brokers and publishers—honor those wishes.
“Political stories are, regardless of party affiliation, not relevant to our brand,” a Fidelity spokesman said in a written statement. The company also avoids several other topics that it says don’t align with published content about business and finance.
Marketers have used blacklists for years to sidestep controversy. Airlines avoided articles dealing with airline crashes, for instance. Now those blacklists are becoming more sophisticated, specific and extensive, ad executives said.
Online news publishers are feeling the impact, from smaller outlets to large players such as CNN.com, USA Today-owner Gannett Co. , the Washington Post and the Journal, according to news and ad executives.
The ad-blacklisting threatens to hit publications’ revenue and is creating incentives to produce more lifestyle-oriented coverage that is less controversial than hard news. Some news organizations are investing in technologies meant to gauge the way news stories make readers feel in the hopes of persuading advertisers that there are options for ad placement other than blacklisting.
Consumer-products company Colgate-Palmolive Co. , sandwich chain Subway and fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. are among the many companies blocking digital ad placements in hard news to various degrees, according to people familiar with those companies’ strategies.
Some companies are creating keyword blacklists so detailed as to make almost all political or hard-news stories off-limits for their ads. “It is de facto news blocking,” said Megan Pagliuca, chief data officer at Hearts & Science, an ad-buying firm owned by Omnicom Group Inc.
The use of lengthy keyword lists “is going to force publishers to do lifestyle content and focus on that at the expense of investigative journalism or serious journalism,” said Nick Hewat, commercial director for the Guardian, a U.K. publisher. “That is a long-term consequence of this sort of buying behavior.” The Guardian has had some advertisers block words such as “Brexit,” he said.
During the second quarter of this year, 177 advertisers that worked with ad measurement firm DoubleVerify Inc. blocked their ads from appearing on news or political content online, up 33% from the year-earlier period and more than double the 2017 total, the company said.
Integral Ad Science Inc., a firm that ensures ads run in content deemed safe for advertisers, said that of the 2,637 advertisers running campaigns with it in June, 1,085 brands blocked the word “shooting,” 314 blocked “ISIS” and 207 blocked “Russia.” Almost 560 advertisers blocked “Trump,” while 83 blocked “Obama.”
The average number of keywords the company’s advertisers were blocking in the first quarter was 261. One advertiser blocked 1,553 words, it said.
The polarized political environment in the U.S. has put brands on heightened alert. Marketers are mindful of the backlash they can face on social media when customers feel they advertised in offensive content. One Twitter account, Sleeping Giants, called out hundreds of brands that appeared on the right-wing news site Breitbart News Network following the 2016 presidential election, prompting widespread blacklisting of the site.
Colgate-Palmolive is blocking online ad placements in news stories, according to people with knowledge of its ad strategy. “In general, our media buying goals are to advertise where people are most likely to be receptive to what we have to say,” a Colgate spokeswoman said in an email. The company said it looks for “opportunities more likely to fit with the brand’s positive, optimistic message.”
Subway said it has blacklisted 70,000 websites, including most hard-news outlets. The company wants to align with “positivity and the moments when our guests will be most likely to consider getting Subway,” said Melissa Sutton, Subway’s director of media services.
Used-car retailer CarMax Inc. blocks online ads it purchases through automated systems from appearing next to news content in categories such as “disasters,” “extreme violence” and “inflammatory politics” to ensure the integrity of its brand, the company said.
McDonald’s currently is blocking hard news from its automated ad purchases in the U.S., according to a person familiar with its ad buying. “The first time your brand is damaged, it’s not easily fixed,” said Bob Rupczynski, senior vice president of marketing technology at McDonald’s, during a recent ad conference in Cannes, France.
Hotel company Marriott International Inc. avoids buying digital ads near opinion or commentary news, according to a person familiar with its approach.
Alphabet Inc. ’s Google has a long keyword blacklist that contains more than 500 words and phrases, including “privacy,” “federal investigation,” “antitrust,” “racism,” “FBI,” “taxes,” “anti-Semitic,” “gun control” and “drought,” according to a copy reviewed by the Journal. The list has made it difficult for at least one news publisher to place Google ads on its site, a person familiar with the matter said.
Blacklisting is cutting into the revenue of some online news publishers, even though they sometimes can replace blocked ads with content from other advertisers.
The audiences of many online publishers grew after President Trump launched his campaign—the “Trump bump.” At the same time, “they are losing revenue because some clients are using extensive keyword exclusion lists,” said John Montgomery, executive vice president of global brand safety at GroupM, one of the world’s largest ad-buying firms.
It is a worrisome trend for the news business, a sector already taking a hit as advertising spending shifts to online ad giantsFacebook Inc. and Google. Spending on newspaper print ads in the U.S. has plummeted 32% over the past five years, according to estimates from Zenith, an ad-buying company owned by Publicis Groupe SA .
CNN.com, which is owned by AT&T Inc., said it deals with some advertisers whose blacklists exceed 1,000 words. Among the words advertisers most often wanted to avoid on CNN.com during the first half of the year were “shooting,” “Mueller,” “ Michael Cohen ” and “crash.” The most-blocked term during the time period was “Trump,” which was blocked 636,636 times, CNN said.
Some digital publishers said the push for brand safety amounts to indirect censorship. Vice Media told advertisers at a presentation in May that it will no longer allow brands to block 25 words, including “bisexual,” “gay,” “HIV,” “lesbian,” “Latino,” “Middle Eastern,” “Jewish” and “Islamic.”
“Bias should not be the collateral damage of our much-needed brand-safety efforts,” said Cavel Khan, senior vice president of client partnerships for North America at the Brooklyn-based media company.
Marketers became more aggressive about protecting their brands online after a 2017 article by the Times of London that carried the headline: “Big brands fund terror through online adverts.” The article reported that ads from well-known brands were appearing on YouTube channels promoting hate speech or terrorism.
In the ensuing months, similar ad-placement problems plagued YouTube and other advertising platforms such as Facebook. Advertisers began taking a more cautious approach to digital advertising, enlisting the help of firms specializing in “brand safety,” ad buyers said.
“What turned out to be a reaction to protect a brand from unsafe things that are mostly user generated content,” on sites such as YouTube, ended up hurting media companies focused on producing real journalism, said Christine Cook, senior vice president and chief revenue officer of CNN’s digital operations.
In automated ad buying, brands aim their ads not at specific websites, but at audiences with certain characteristics—people with certain shopping or web browsing histories, for example. Their ads are matched in real time to available inventory in online ad marketplaces that can come from thousands of websites. That is why brands sometimes are surprised to find their ads on websites they find controversial.
Ad-tech firms specializing in brand safety offer advertisers multiple ways to control their ad placements. Advertisers can block entire categories, such as “politics” or “violence,” using classifications brand-safety firms have set up after crawling the web. They can avoid certain keywords that appear in an article or headline. And they can establish a blacklist of sites to avoid or a white-list of sites they deem safe.
Brand safety has become a big business on Madison Avenue. Some agencies have hired teams of people to monitor digital ad placements, and some marketers have hired brand-safety officers.
Ad-technology firm OpenSlate said so many companies have asked for help avoiding news and political content on YouTube that it developed an algorithm last year to identify channels focusing those areas. Mike Henry, OpenSlate’s chief executive officer, said about one-third of its top 100 clients are currently avoiding news and politics on YouTube.
Some ad-sales executives said the technology used for brand safety is too blunt because it doesn’t take into account the full context of how specific words are used in a news story or video. CNN.com and Gannett are creating technology intended to give advertisers a better way to gauge if a news story is controversial.
CNN.com said it is testing a new product dubbed SAM, for Sentiment Analysis Moderator, that uses machine learning to score its site’s content for whether it will make readers feel “mostly negative,” “somewhat negative,” “neutral,” “somewhat positive” or “mostly positive.”
CNN tested the system by having it score 70,000 pieces of content, then having human editors review the content to see whether the technology worked. The company is testing the system with some advertisers who want to buy ads based on sentiment.
The New York Times and USA Today also have been using sentiment analysis to help brands advertise in news articles that may have a positive or optimistic sentiment.
Allison Murphy, senior vice president for ad innovation at New York Times Co., said the company now offers several different ad-targeting options. “We can satisfy a brand that is fine with politics but doesn’t want to be around President Trump,” she said.
In May, representatives of several companies, including CNN.com, USA Today and the Journal met to discuss how they could work with ad agencies and measurement companies to devise a way to move the sector beyond keyword blacklists, according to people familiar with the meetings.
The “overreliance on long keyword blacklists has a real cost” to both publishers and brands, said Josh Stinchcomb, global chief revenue officer of the Journal and Barron’s, both owned by News Corp . “To that end, we are building proprietary tools that ensure brand safety.”
The Washington Post also is using new technologies that help advertisers gauge the context of stories.
Ms. Cook at CNN.com said news organizations must change advertisers’ perception of news. “One of the things I have been evangelizing is all the dimensions of other content types” the company creates, she said.
Some news publishers, including CNN.com and USA Today, are producing and promoting more ad-friendly lifestyle, technology, business and sports content.
“If a client says to us, ‘We are just really not comfortable with news,’ unlike some of our competitors, we don’t have to say, ‘Let me talk to you about why you should run in news,’ ” said Michael Kuntz, chief operating officer of national sales at USA Today Network, which includes USA Today and more than 100 local news outlets.
Still, he said, “the future of the digital news space is heavily reliant on us continuing to change the perception around why news does not need to be a polarizing category.”
—Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg contributed to this article.