Most companies regularly take steps to make sure their ads don’t run near headlines that could upset potential customers. So news organizations weren’t surprised when advertisers canceled campaigns in recent weeks or demanded that their ads be placed far from coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, costing publishers significant revenue.
Burger King was an exception. Instead of shunning articles that included terms like “Covid-19” or “pandemic,” the company behind the Whopper focused its message on contactless food delivery and pickup. That way, its marketing would not seem out of place in a grim news cycle, said Marcelo Pascoa, the company’s head of brand and communications.
“It isn’t damaging for the brand to appear within the context of the crisis, because the brand is playing a role,” he said.
To stay away from bad news, advertisers often turn to a method known as blacklisting. It allows airlines to avoid running ads near plane-crash coverage, and companies with wholesome images to keep away from articles containing words like “murder” or “sex.” In a time of political polarization, frequently blacklisted terms include “Russia,” “impeach” and, among the most avoided, “Trump.”
Lately, the most-blocked terms pertain to the virus. Blacklisting during the pandemic has kept more than 1.3 billion ads from being displayed next to content featuring the word “coronavirus” on websites, according to the ad verification firm Integral Ad Science. That has had a devastating effect on ad-dependent news organizations, many of which have been forced to lay off workers at a time when the pandemic has dominated coverage.
For quality journalism to survive, more companies should behave like Burger King, news publishers and marketing executives say.
“There’s a way to support legitimate journalism and not be embarrassed,” Mr. Brill said.
But there are complications, aside from corporate squeamishness. Many companies are struggling to stay afloat and have less to spend on marketing. Further, they worry that their ads could end up on websites that peddle false information or conspiracy theories related to the virus.
Mr. Brill said companies should put aside their fears, given the threat to the news industry.
“Advertisers can continue to make thoughtful decisions about ad placements on Covid-19 content while supporting serious journalism and remaining confident their ads will not appear on misinformation sites,” he said.
In a recent essay for the trade publication The Drum, Jerry Daykin, a media executive at the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, urged his peers to support worthy news outlets. The headline for his piece was blunt: “Marketers — stop blocking the best parts of the internet or they won’t exist anymore.”
“If we cut the funding from high-quality content and journalism,” Mr. Daykin wrote, “it simply won’t exist for us to advertise against in the future.”
Some companies, such as Slack, Geico, Netflix and the telemedicine company GoodRx, have continued to place ads with news publications despite the tragic news cycle.
Verizon also went against the trend, spending more than $4.5 million on advertising on news sites like The Wall Street Journal and CNN since mid-March. That was more than double what it had spent over the same period last year, according to the advertising analytics platform Pathmatics.
“Instead of pulling back because of the daunting nature of the narrative, we’ve leaned in,” Diego Scotti, Verizon’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement.
Many advertisers went into “panic mode,” said Michel de Rijk, the chief executive of the digital advertising company S4 Capital.
“Their first response was to stop everything,” he said. “They didn’t want to be perceived in the wrong way or associated in some way.”
When print was the dominant medium, ads were placed by human beings able to make judgment calls. In the digital era, custom filters and algorithms guide ads into position alongside online articles.
Some companies have thousands of blacklisted keywords and topics. The blocking strategy is a “blunt tool,” said Daniel Avital, the chief strategy officer of the ad fraud prevention company Cheq.
“Keyword blacklisting sees everything in black and white,” he said. “Covid is being mentioned in every single article, good or bad, but there is no spectrum, no nuance, distinguishing a horrific article about old people dying from a benign article about a musician performing from their living room.”
Strict filters are less expensive than sophisticated algorithms that scan stories for context, Mr. Avital added.
If the pandemic lasts through June, keyword blocking will drain more than $1 billion in revenue from online news publishers in the United States, according to a study conducted by Cheq and the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business. News publications are twice as likely as other platforms to have ads scrubbed because of coronavirus-related content, IAB said.
As the virus lingers, isolation-themed ads have increasingly popped up on news sites. But many companies continue to funnel the bulk of their online ad spending to Google and Facebook, which have struggled to contain conspiracy theories and sketchy merchants.
An example is the e-commerce company Overstock. Between March 11 and April 9, it spent more than $136,000 on news sites but $362,000 on Facebook ads, according to Pathmatics.
News publishers are pushing for a larger share.
“Trusted news organizations are the ultimate safe space for brands,” said Joy Robins, the chief revenue officer for The Washington Post, “but trust and scale are not enough. Publishers can also guide brands on how to responsibly speak to their highly engaged readers.”