Advertisers Blacklisting News, Other Stories with “Controversial” Words Like “Trump”

It’s no longer paranoid to say that “they” are out to kill news. First it was the Internet almost entirely displacing classified ads, which had accounted for roughly half of newspaper industry revenues in the US. The Internet also turned most people save those who are now oldsters off print newspapers, even though nothing is so efficient to scan, taking with it higher subscription rates and display ads. Then Facebook and Google sucked most online advertiser revenues to themselves.

To add insult to injury, Google implemented algos hostile to smaller sites, first targeting those that did what Google deemed to be too much aggregation, like our daily Links feature. Google deemed those sites to be “low quality”. One wonders if the real issue was that they competed with Google News. Then Google downgraded sites it deemed not to be “authoritative,” whacking not only many left and right leaning sites but even The Intercept. Facebook’s parallel action was to change its search and newsfeed algos, supposedly to combat fake news, but also hurting left-leaning publishers.

Now, as the Wall Street Journal reports, many major advertisers have created blacklists, nixing ad placements that appear next to or in stories with headlines using naughty words like “bomb” that amount to a partial or total ban on news content. It isn’t isn’t just fluffy feel good brands that want to steer clear of controversy. Startlingly, even some financial services companies like Fidelity want to stay away from hot words like “Trump” even though “Trump” appears regularly in business news headlines, such as ones discussing his China trade spat, his tax cuts, his deregulatory efforts, and today, his interest in buying Greenland.

It appears advertisers just want us to take our Soma and shop rather than know about anything in the world at large. One wonders if words like “climate” and “strike” are on some blacklists. From the Journal:

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.”….

“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…

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.

Notice how obituaries are on the verboten list for many advertisers. So would be articles discussing deaths of despair and many on the opioid epidemic.

The Journal points out that advertisers have long had blacklists, but in the past they weren’t as widely used and were narrower. But after a 2017 Times of London story exposed how many advertisers were running ads on YouTube channels with hate speech thanks to automated ad buys on online ad marketplaces. Up sprung a new mini-industry of “brand safety” firms that have generated blacklists so far-reaching as to imperil already-strained publishers:

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…

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 Guardian said some advertisers have banned the word “Brexit”. Advertisers like Subway claimed they wanted their ads to be associated with things like “positivity”. I don’t think eating fast food that makes dodgy pretenses about being healthy is positive, but to each his own.

Google won’t place ads with stories that might bump up against its commercial interest…which includes a wide swathe of business reporting:

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.

And some advertisers are effectively rebelling against idpol:

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.”

There is a bit of an arms war underway, with publishers trying to persuade advertisers that there screens are too crude:

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.”…

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.

But you can see where this is going. News will have to be massaged to have a high enough “feel good” quotient. How soon will we see AI-based editing that will flag negative-sounding content and send it back to the author for a rewrite?

And what does it say about the US as a society that we tolerate only positive emotions? Every major religion is based on the inevitability of suffering. Trying to deny that that is fundamental to the human condition is a fast track to neurosis.

But more immediately, this development shows that advertisers and Silicon Valley are terrible parasites. An effective parasite has a symbiotic relationship with its host. Advertisers and the tech platforms depend on content, yet they seem out to kill it. Perhaps Facebook is happy to get by with no news whatsoever, but how do the elites function if the news business continues to shrivel? How do they have even a remote handle on what is going on outside their PR bubbles? They may be happier that way, but so to were French nobles in 1788.

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34 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    Why don’t they just put Disneyland in charge of all these lists? I am sure that the “The Happiest Place On Earth” has lots of experience in presenting a “happy” twist on things. It’s the Disney Corporate way. Looks like too that you can have any flavour of news that you want in future – just so long as it is vanilla.

    Reply
    1. Geo

      “Today in world news, everything is great. Here in our country everyone is happy and the economy is strong. The weather in your region is sunny and enjoyable. In sports your favorite team won. Now, here’s a word from our sponsors…”

      Reply
    2. Off The Street

      Lake Wobegon references now banned from proximity to Disney advertising, film at 11. ;p

      News seems more curated these days, which I take to mean being treated like cured meats with sodium nitrite and such. No wonder I’m thirsty.

      Reply
    3. Jack Parsons

      Airlines have long banned air disasters from the inflight movies and news channels.

      The constant drumbeat of “if it bleeds, it leads” is unhealthy. This is definitely a overly powered cure, but I’m not totally against it.

      Reply
  2. Geo

    Reminds me of the late/great Bill Hicks standup piece about people who work in advertising.

    I wonder if any brands willing to use banned keywords would be able to get as placement on “controversial” sites for cheaper or are ads on such content now just impossible?

    Also related and of note: Lately while watching video clips from TYT, Secular Talk, The Hill, and RT on YouTube I have found the autoplay consistently plays an MSNBC video after the one I chose to watch ends. I’ve not chosen an MSNBC video in years but apparently YouTube thinks that is what I should be watching instead of the video news sources I consistently select and subscribe to.

    I leave the videos on in the background while doing busy work and in the past it would just play related clips (other videos from the channel I was watching or channels I typically watch) but now i get the jarring annoyance of hearing Rachel Maddow’s voice chime in with some nonsense while I frantically dart back to my computer to stop the video.

    Reply
    1. Ptb

      “I haven’t watched msnbc in years”…

      Ah, but you have. You watch it every time you watch another clip. If it’s in the background you might even let it play for more than a few seconds. That counts ;-)

      Reply
  3. Arizona Slim

    Okay, commentariat, it’s time for an essay contest. Winning entry will be judged on the basis of clever use of the controversial words mentioned above.

    Ready, set, go!

    Reply
    1. redleg

      This is a good idea.
      I recently wrote a song using business jargon such as pulling the oars, touch points, moving the needle, tiger team, drilling deeper, boil the ocean, etc.
      It’s not a happy song.
      This sounds like a good writing exercise, just like the jargon was.

      Reply
  4. lyman alpha blob

    Seeing as no news is good news, where do these advertisers expect to see their ads placed if they have such extensive lists of keywords used to block placement? There are only so many stories about sparkle rainbow unicorn ponies.

    Reply
  5. Ptb

    Interesting development. First of 2 comments:

    Google news is already lobotomized far more than 3 years ago.

    I used it the other day to follow the HK airport story, and its results were limited to something like 8-10 media orgs, primarily CNN, CNBC, NYT, WaPo, Fox, guardian, scmp. Sky news was in there. On-site live video coverage was provided by only by them. Thus a murdoch channel, receiving a monopoly on detailed coverage thanks to Google. Oops. Anyway, they were maybe on page 3 of results.

    Other valuable and perfectly “PC” outlets like Spiegel online (they showed a few context-relevant video clips of the mainland Chinese guy getting rear-naked-choked right before the mob descended on him. That was omitted by all English language media channels I could find. ) That channel was nowhere to be found.

    Also, Bloomberg, who actually manages to be politically neutral unlike other leading US channels that are significantly tilted once way or the other, is getting de-emphasized, though stil there.

    Little guys (often ther most valuable media) are long gone from Google.

    So anyway the “search” era ended for news, IMO.

    Reply
  6. Ptb

    Second of 2 comments:

    It might depend on the advertiser, but some of these keywords would remove the most emotionally potent content. I’m pretty sure all known theories of advertising effectiveness require the viewer to be “turned on” to make a lasting impression. E.g. crime story + jeep ad, better than CSPAN + jeep ad. Same for bathroom / beauty product ads. E.g. news anchor delivers serious subject. Shot of news anchor looking at other news anchor and nodding / social interaction body language. They look well put together… mind registers their interaction. Content is of limited interest, the fact that they are having an interaction while sharing a potent news moment, will set up the sale of the beauty product during the break.

    This is going to be a super interesting social experiment, if it is carried out.

    Reply
  7. Summer

    “but how do the elites function if the news business continues to shrivel? How do they have even a remote handle on what is going on outside their PR bubbles?”
    That news, any real news, will have to be subscription based. It wouldn’t be advertiser based.

    The dissident press will most likely have to be distributed in some off-line form.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      In the old days, we would have run off a hundred copies using a mimeograph machine and distributed it through an informal social network. I believe that the Russians had a word for it during the late unlamented Soviet Era: Samizdat.
      See, while you still can: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samizdat
      Another overlooked aspect of the now new normal internet news milieu is the ease of removal of ‘unofficial’ news items. In the old days, (an era I hail from,) there were paper copies of the papers of record as well as dissident journals. It took learned skills, but old news could be found, since it still physically existed somewhere. Today, electronic ‘news’ is literally ephemera; here today and gone tomorrow. Whomever controls the platform upon which the ‘news’ service runs can control all content, and, importantly, the lifespan of that content. Orwell would have instantly recognized the potential for abuse the internet provides. His “memor yhole” is now the “memorytrashbinfunction.” Indeed, I see that Orwell’s term “memory hole” has been extended into the internet age.
      See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_hole
      Have a doubleplusgood day citizen!

      Reply
      1. JBird4049

        With the closing and consolidation of many newspapers, their achieves are often not stored for easy access, or are just disposed of. Which means the history of many cities and towns large and small just goes away.

        Reply
  8. Jamie_Griff

    Haven’t advertisers forgotten that the point of news is to make people feel terrible, so that they’ll buy stuff to make them feel better?

    Reply
  9. Synoia

    Here are the allowable news facts:

    Today is Friday, yesterday was Thursday and tomorrow will be Saturday. The sun is still shining, and there will be weather everywhere.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      Before Thursday came Zeepsday, but many of us have forgotten. (I blame Gordon Dickson for obscuring the existence of Zeepsday, as if it was in some alternate reality or something.)

      Reply
    2. JBird4049

      But mentioning Freyja’s Day, Thor’s Day, and Saturn’s Day is talking about religion which might be bad for our ads and so we can’t use those words. However, mentioning Sun’s Day is only talking about astronomy so it is fine.

      Reply
        1. JBird4049

          People are fond of ignoring pesky stuff like that. Heck, the blasted Prosperity Gospel that’s wormed into modern American Protestant Churches is an example.

          Let’s ignore what much of the New Testament and some of the old says about wealth because somehow having money means that you are a better person that has Heaven’s blessings. Yes, I know it’s a popular among the grifters masquerading as preachers, but really, read the text people.

          Reply
          1. ambrit

            Heavens above, let us read all the apocryphia that was removed from the New Testament by the Councils of the first three centuries after Christ.
            I once almost had a fight break out when I asked a construction worker who was wearing a tee shirt with “My boss is a Jewish Carpenter” on it if he understood that that Jewish carpenter was a Theocratic Communist.
            That did not go down well at all.
            Marx may have said that “Religion is the opium of the people,” but today religion is the dog whistle that guides the flocks.

            Reply
  10. Erik

    Annoying that advertisers have this sort of fine grained control but we consumers aren’t able to use a blacklist to choose what sorts of ads we’re forced to see.

    Reply
    1. Cal2

      Erik,

      Reverse that psychology:

      People in a local advertising market should strenuously object to advertisers buying space news venues that endorse Middle Eastern wars, fight Medicare for All and ignore economic issues.

      Is this Joe’s used car lot? Why are you buying ads in a newspaper that promotes bull like the Iraq war? We’re going to boycott your business and tell all our friends to do the same and thumb you down on Yelp. Stop supporting those enemies of the American people.”

      “Support alternative media that has our interests at heart. You’ll be our heroes instead of our enemy…”

      ..”

      Reply
  11. drexciya

    This is a typical recent development; YouTube has been heavily skewing it’s algorithm towards advertiser-friendly content, and it heavily promotes mainstream media, which the average user isn’t interested in. Recently some LGBTQ groups have started a case against Google for this, but that is rather naive, if you ask me. Certain types of content in that area are very advertiser-unfriendly. And if you really want to achieve something, unite all kinds of content creators, and don’t stick to your own clique.

    The strange thing is that these sites want to become more like regular media, while lots of people have been turned away from regular media outlets. It’s the varied content creators that make YouTube interesting, not the other way around.

    Another interesting recent thing that popped up, was the introduction of “fake”/heavily promoted channels. In a recent links topic, there was something about “glam vans”. There are some suspicious things going on with a YouTube channel, which features a girl living in a glam van; this channel got loads of views and subscriptions, while only uploading a few videos. Also there were lots of people who where subscribed to this channel, without their own knowledge. People feel that it’s a test of artificially promoting a channel by YouTube. Check Memology 101 and YouTube artificial growth to check a number of videos on this topic, since the link doesn’t seem to stick.

    Reply
  12. Tomonthebeach

    I do not see this as news suppression (though that could be an indirect effect) but merely not wanting one’s product/logo/company name subconsciously associated with murder and mayhem – especially Trump. Research studies in the past have shown that the bad news might get associated with a product or other image flashed at the same time. This likely did not happen so much with past paper news because is was easier to visually tune out the adds. However, when on the screen – it is there looming all the times.

    6 weeks ago my watch died so I went ISO a replacement. I am partial to Charriols and Raymond Weils. For weeks afterward, the right column of Naked Capitalism blasted me with watch pictures from those companies – even zooming in and out to get my attention. I guess they missed the cookie showing I bought one. My brain likely associated this site with taste, punctuality, quality….. :-)

    Reply
    1. drexciya

      This is a stupid thing about this type of advertising. If you have intensively searched for certain items, and then you stop doing that, the algorithm should understand that it’s not relevant anymore. It should have something like the time-to-live setting, which is used in lots of caching algorithms.

      I do not agree with you that this isn’t about news suppression. Directly and indirectly this is impacting news. Since lots of people want news from alternative sources, and not the mainstream sources. By using algorithms and actively demoting certain channels and/or actively promoting content you are directly influencing people. Especially by using this in the recommended part of YouTube.

      Various YouTube channels, like Tim Pool, have noted that they could clearly see an impact in the number of views their channel got, because of the algorithm changes. The main issue is that it becomes very hard to get your content shown to new viewers. Your existing base will keep on watching your videos, but it’s hard to make a channel grow that way.

      Another channel that got into a spat with YouTube was the TimeGhost History channel, which does a show on WW2 (WW2 in real time, very interesting series of videos by the way). They got a list with “tips”, from YouTube themselves, to make the content friendlier for advertisers. They decided to shitpost, and made a really fun (cat)video to poke fun at the idiots at YouTube (Monetize This, YouTube! – WW2 – Cat 01 – July 24 1940).

      That just goes to show how stupid bowing for advertisers is. This was also a reason for me to support that channel via Patreon, which is another important development. More and more channels are monetizing themselves in various ways, and giving YouTube the middle finger. So what if you’re demonetized, if you can get money from another source. Steven Crowder got a big upswing in “members”, after being attacked by Carlos Maza and YouTube.

      Reply
  13. Bobby Gladd

    This is a great–albeit depressing–post. Thanks.

    Meanwhile, you can buy all manner of crass “Q Anon” stuff in the Irony-Free Dept. on Amazon. Everything is merchandise now, except for rational analytical ideas.

    Reply
  14. fdr-fan

    The simple answer is Share Value. Advertisers and media no longer care about products and profits and advertising and real customers and real employees. They only care about the customers who buy shares. Those customers (who are mostly algos these days) want to see Absolute Ideological Purity as measured by AI. The best way to achieve purity as seen by AI is to use AI.

    Corporations are in a race to eliminate all Negative Externalities like products and employees, leaving only pure internal stock manipulation and mathematics. Get free money from the Fed, use it to raise the Share Value. Perpetual motion.

    Reply
  15. shtove

    On a related note, just found this edit of Katy Perry’s Chained To The Rhythm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um7pMggPnug

    Quite different from the original. There’s also a stage performance version with giant skeleton puppets of Trump and May.

    Just looking for insight on how American entertainment is allowed so much self-awareness, why it contains so much criticism of its own system. Robocop as documentary!

    Reply
  16. Eudora Welty

    From Yves’ intro: “…print newspapers, even though nothing is so efficient to scan”

    This is one of the things I truly miss the most about life from 20 years ago: buying a local paper or the NYT at a coffee shop or other place, laying it open on the counter, and scanning each page. I was so much more well-read about a variety of things back then, especially sports. I would glance through the sports section, page by page, but nowadays I don’t go near sport sites freely unless a big event has happened.

    I recall, reading the NYT in the above manner, on the day Kurt Cobain’s death was a story on the front page of the NYT, and a young staffer there asked me if they could have the newspaper when I was done reading it.

    Reply
  17. FKorning

    It’s one thing for google, facebook, et al to impose filters and blocklists, as these are de-facto public utilities and have a duty of impartiality. Advertisers, on the other hand, should be able to do as they please with respect to limiting the associations to their brands. That’s not for us to do but for Mr. market and Money Talks, to evolve organically. Everything being nuanced, there are areas where advertising ought to be regulated for neutrality: religious speech, political speech, election campaigns, possibly healthcare and the welfare of children. minorities or the invalid. After that if a banal product wishes to ban Trump so be it. Consumer choice is where the public passes verdict when all else fails.

    Reply

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