Last month Target Corp. told a leading online news publisher not to run its ads in stories related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Articles mentioning police-brutality victims such as "Breonna Taylor" and "George Floyd" were off limits, as were those with the word "protests."
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Target and other advertisers that compiled similar "blocklists" say they were respecting the sensitivity of the issue and wanted to avoid the appearance of exploiting tragedies. News publishers say such moves effectively punish media companies for covering important issues, since they earn less money from content where ad-blocking is prevalent.
Blocklists aren't new: Before this year, many brands already were sidestepping articles with words like "shooting," "bomb," "immigration" or even "Trump," hoping to avoid associations with controversial topics. The ad blocking went to a new level in 2020 -- first, as the terms "Covid-19" and "coronavirus" made it onto many blocklists, and more recently with the addition of terms related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
"It's defunding our journalism at a time when it's imperative for us to be the front lines doing this kind of work," said Paul Wallace, Vice Media's vice president for global revenue products and services. Black Lives Matter coverage was Vice's most popular news in June, yet commanded ad prices 57% lower than news about other topics because so many brands are actively avoiding placing ads in those articles, he said.
"The most frustrating part of all of this is that the brands that are sending this stuff are standing on a pedestal saying that they support BLM," he said.
A Target spokesman said the retailer's ad blocking "does not discount the importance of reporting on topics like Black Lives Matter or the murder of George Floyd. It's intended to acknowledge that the person consuming that content may not be receptive to a marketing message from a mass retailer like Target at that time." The spokesman added, "Target stands with our Black team members, guests and families."
Based in Minneapolis, where a white police officer's killing of Mr. Floyd set off nationwide protests, Target was among the companies most outspoken about the unrest. It promised aid to the community and signed a letter promising to tackle institutional racism. Target Chief Executive Brian Cornell said in May that the company would remember victims of police brutality. "We say their names," he said.
Target is among many brands that have temporarily paused ad spending on Facebook Inc. after a public campaign by civil-rights groups that say the tech giant isn't doing enough to rein in hate speech on its platform.
MTV, the youth-oriented cable channel owned by ViacomCBS Inc., also avoided ad placements near articles about the protests and unrest. It asked the same leading publisher to avoid placing its ads in stories that mention words including "Breonna Taylor," "Ahmaud Aubery" [sic], "George Floyd," "Black Lives Matter," "protests," "racism," "hate" and "policing."
An MTV spokeswoman said the cable network believes the keyword blocklist in question was for ads for the show "Revenge Prank."
"Due to the comedic nature of the show...we didn't want to be insensitive by placing ads for it next to important and serious topics, such as Black Lives Matter," she said. "This is standard practice we use with our media agency to ensure that our ads don't come across as tone-deaf or disrespectful."
Brands maintain keyword blocklists because they don't always buy ads aimed at specific websites. Instead, in automated ad buying, they often target certain kinds of audiences or types of content, and middlemen direct their ads to sites that fit those characteristics. The blocklists help middlemen and publishers weed out certain ad placements.
When Covid-19 took over the news cycle in March, news publishers' page views soared as readers flocked to those stories. But ad prices plummeted as much as 50% compared with the year-ago period, partly because of the keyword blocking by advertisers. The pandemic led to a broader downturn in ad spending, which also affected ad prices across the board.
Ad prices began climbing in May as brands grew more comfortable, but then took a hit again in late May when Mr. Floyd's death and the protests became the top news story. In the two weeks after Mr. Floyd's May 25 death, ad prices on news content were on average 41% lower than the same date a year earlier, according to Staq Inc., which aggregates data from more than 40 digital publications. Prices slowly began to rebound as protests commanded less coverage. Ad prices now are about 20% below where they were a year ago.
Some brands forgo the blocklist approach, instead using technology that scores an article's overall sentiment, rather than just detecting the presence of certain words. Avoiding certain keywords can be too blunt, said Guy Tytunovich, chief executive of Cheq AI Technologies Ltd., which helps brands avoid objectionable content by scoring an article's sensitivity.
"It's bad enough being an elephant in a china store. It's much worse when you're a huge elephant in a tiny, tiny china store, which is the case in 2020, when so much of the news is negative," Mr. Tytunovich said.
He has advised clients to tolerate more risk than usual in 2020, so their ads wind up on some news stories. But Cheq's technology scores most Black Lives Matter-related content as too sensitive even for advertisers with high risk thresholds, he said.
Research suggests brands needn't fear association with hard-news topics. Consumers don't think negatively of brands when their ads run adjacent to troubling news, according to a recent study by Integral Ad Science, a firm that helps brands avoid unfavorable ad placements.
"It's not like people are reading about Trump and they see a Home Depot ad. And then they think, 'oh, I hate Trump, so now I hate Home Depot,'" said one media executive.
Some companies paused ad campaigns because they weren't sure how to contribute meaningfully to the national conversation about race, ad industry executives said.
"A lot of advertisers tend to just pause during these moments because they can't come up with the right message," said Staq Chief Executive Andy Ellenthal.