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Advertisers want readers and viewers to focus on their messages, so they often try to avoid inserting those messages within controversial or distracting content. For example, they might request that their advertisements never appear near conspiracy theorists’ posts on social media, in commercial breaks during horror movies shown on television, or next to politically polarized editorials in print media. These requests are often automated, in a process known as blacklisting, such that an advertiser might mandate that its ads never appear after text that refers to “murder” for example.

The automated effort can have some unintended consequences though, and those issues have intensified in relation to COVID-19. That is, many advertisers have asked media outlets to keep their marketing messages away from any reporting that features words like “pandemic” or “coronavirus,” for fear that the anxiety and fear created by such content might spill over, with negative effects for their brand image.

This blacklist entry is particularly problematic for media outlets though, especially considering how much content focuses on COVID-19 and necessarily features such terms. Not only is it difficult to find places to insert ads that are not in proximity to this ubiquitous content, but the limitations also are reducing their advertising revenues. According to one analysis, more than 1.3 billion advertisements have been prevented, due to blacklists that prevent them from appearing next to the word “coronavirus.”

Beyond the immediate effect on advertising revenues, these practices could have long-term and detrimental implications for journalism too. That is, if a blacklist prevents advertising from appearing next to serious, critical topics, the sources available to provide in-depth and responsible reporting lose support. Responsible news outlets have experienced an estimated 90 percent drop in the ad campaigns that had been slated to run alongside their articles. Some of the loss is due to the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis; many advertisers, having lost revenue, simply do not have the resources to support the same level of advertising they invested in prior to the pandemic. But the fear of being linked to scary—even if informative, accurate, and necessary—news reporting also has exerted a negative influence.

Not all companies are embracing this notion though, and the outliers are instructive. Burger King actively sought out the connection with the crisis and developed new campaigns to highlight its delivery services and contactless pickup options. An executive with GlaxoSmithKline explicitly called on other pharmaceutical firms to place their advertising in high-quality media channels, with the caution that “If we cut funding from high-quality content and journalism, it simply won’t exist for us to advertise again in the future.”

In both these examples, the companies found ways to establish themselves as resources that consumers could turn to during the crisis, to address their needs and solve problems they perceived. Arguably, more firms could take a similar approach and advertise their brands in relation to the benefits they provide during the COVID-19 era. Yet such a strategy also may be risky; for some consumers, being constantly bombarded with virus-related content is overwhelming, and they turn to media channels for a break from such information.

Accordingly, it appears that many more advertisers are putting more of their resources into advertising in less serious, more entertainment-focused channels, including social media. But advertising on Google and Facebook has its own risks, especially as pandemic-related conspiracy theories and false information spread. These channels generally lack the same strict rules that govern reputed media outlets, meaning that the information published on them offers no guarantee of truth or accuracy.

For advertisers then, the question becomes: Is it better to appear next to a depressing but true and high-quality news report, or is it preferable to show up next to cheerful but possibly misleading entertainment content?

Discussion Question

  1. How would you answer the question that concludes this abstract?

Source: Tiffany Hsu and Marc Tracy, “News Outlets Want More Advertisers to Act Like Burger King,” The New York Times, May 7, 2020