This article was originally published on AdExchanger, March 11, 2020.
The unprecedented public health challenge of the coronavirus is also uncovering the challenges facing the ad tech industry around how to protect the public by combating the spread of misinformation. As with the virus itself, it’s critical that the industry practices good hygiene and acts responsibly to protect society.
As with every major crisis, the public turns to news for information. News organizations are working overtime to provide extended coverage and, in some instances, dropping their paywalls. Free access to reliable information is paramount during this time, so people can make informed decisions.
The challenge with coronavirus is that for some advertisers, it is triggering brand-safety concerns. This is because its coverage includes hot-button keywords such as “illness” and “death,” both of which are typically found in keyword blacklists. But there’s something different that makes this issue even more problematic: the uniqueness of the words, “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.
Even advertisers that might not block “illness” and “death” may avoid the words “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” as if the words themselves are contagious. The result? Starving news publishers providing valuable and legitimate coverage of advertising revenue from Tier 1 marketers.
For the news industry that has both stepped up and lowered paywalls and that have already been repeatedly hit by advertising avoidance challenges, this has a real financial cost. So what do they do? Unsurprisingly, they turn to ad exchanges and networks to fill the glut of ad supply.
In the typical response during a genuine and severe brand-safety incident, such as a mass tragedy with a high death toll, news coverage peaks and then dissipates. Advertisers that may be sensitive to that incident can add to their keyword list temporarily and then, as coverage ends, remove those words to prevent false positives.
The key differences between true major brand safety incidents and coronavirus now is that there is little to no room for opportunists to profit. The same keywords unique to “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” that are used to avoid perceived bad content are the same unique keywords that can be used by opportunists and conspiracy theorists to gouge people buying face masks and promote quack remedies. The result is a perfect storm: Ad demand from legitimate advertisers plummets and unscrupulous people can step in and fill that ad supply by targeting the same keywords.
Google, Facebook and Pinterest have taken proactive steps to stop ads for price gouging or false cures, and Amazon and eBay have looked to stop sales of products linked to price gouging. But bad actors will always find a way, especially where there are inconsistent policies across platforms and no coordinated response.
The advertising and media industry should follow the example from the computer security industry in the late 1980s when it developed CERT – the Computer Emergency Response Team – a way of coordinating information and behavior during malware and virus outbreaks. No pun intended, but faced with a similar challenge, the ad industry should form its own Advertising and Platform Emergency Response Team (APERT) to combat the weaponization of advertising during a crisis.
Through collective action of a response team like APERT, the ad tech industry could provide and prioritize free ad credits for organizations such as the World Health Organization and CDC, raising awareness of legitimate sources of information and providing public health officials with a way of reaching the communities that brands serve. It could also collectively share intelligence, identify and block the bad actors and, in some cases – such as where there is price gouging – report them to relevant authorities. In the absence of an entity like APERT, we find ourselves in our current situation with people sharing “gotcha” screenshots of overpriced face mask ads on news sites.
To be fair, APERT is only part of the solution. The other side of the coin is advertiser responsibility during a crisis. Not funding news and journalism is not healthy for society and democracy. Being both a brand safety officer and a pragmatist, I understand the challenges of advertising in what can be controversial environments, but there are ways to advertise in news and be sensitive to the issues.
Instead of blocking ads, a viable solution is to run a “responsibility ad” that sends people to information about how your organization is managing or supporting people during the crisis. Or, for forward-thinking organizations, they can run an ad saying that their brand is funding a news article as a public service to the community. In a world where so many corporations have “supporting community” in their lists of values, this solution should be consistent with their organizational principles.