Marketers have become increasingly conservative in their quest for brand safety.
They’ve gone from blocking ads next to content that supports terrorism – such as ISIS beheading videos in 2017 – to shying away from content that simply makes them feel uncomfortable.
In recent months, that’s meant blocking essential news about the coronavirus pandemic and even broad keywords associated with social unrest. For example, some advertisers excluded the term “Black people” in reaction to the protests that swept the nation following the killing of George Floyd.
The upcoming 2020 election is likely to trigger even more reactionary behavior on the part of advertisers as fake news and disinformation comes to the forefront.
But despite their aggressive blocklists, these same brands still haven’t fixed the core problem of spending money on ads that support media rife with hate speech and disinformation, according to Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi, co-founders of Check My Ads.
The duo set up shop in mid-June to help brands audit their site lists and advise them on how to better manage brand safety. Their method doesn’t involve fancy algorithms – which is part of the problem, in their opinion – but focuses on their deep understanding of how automated advertising works and the levers that can be pulled to stop supporting hate sites.
The Check My Ads approach is threefold: get brands to support real news, improve their performance by blocking bad sites and provide a neutral, independent voice for in-house marketers.
Shortly after its launch, Check My Ads saw its calendar start filling up, including interest from large, multinational brands.
“Marketers are starting to realize that this is something they have to pay attention to,” Atkin said. “This is affecting our community members, our family and even our democracy. We’re all realizing we have to do our part.”
Outside of Check My Ads, Atkin runs a boutique marketing firm called First Mountain. Jammi was working as a B2B marketer when she co-founded Sleeping Giants, the formerly anonymous social media campaign that calls out brands for advertising on sites that include hate speech, such as Breitbart News.
Goal No. 1: Get brands back on real news sites, sans blocklists
As part of its work, Check My Ads wants brands to embrace news content on legitimate sites.
“We have never, ever seen a brand be called out for being on a bad news story,” Atkin said. There might be awkward or funny placements, but it’s not going to get a shampoo brand in trouble.”
Atkin and Jammi are also concerned that brands are creating biased blocklists.
“What is controversial?” Atkin said. “It depends entirely on the person building the keyword blocklist.”
For example, she’s seen topics, including “minimum wage,” make an appearance on blocklists.
“If you are an airline, block ‘plane crash,’” Atkin said. “But don’t block ‘racism’ or ‘trans’ or ‘lesbian’ because it makes you feel icky. That makes no sense.”
Goal No. 2: Improve performance by blocking fake news
Check My Ads rejects the idea that an ad appearing next to “bad” news doesn’t perform.
“To block the news is to block your audience,” Atkin said. “The ads are the good news next to that bad news.”
But going to the source – weeding out fake news and disinformation sites rather than toiling away on subjective, restrictive blocklists – can actually improve brand performance.
When Sleeping Giants called out Uber for ads that kept appearing on fake news sites, including Breitbart, its former head of acquisition marketing uncovered a $90 million fraud scheme.
“Finding your ad on a disinformation, fake news or hate site is usually a sign that your ads are not in your control,” Jammi said.
At Check My Ads, the same principle holds true. As part of the work its team did with Headphones.com removing conspiracy and fake news sites from its ad plan, the marketer was able to cut its ad budget from $1,200 per day to $40 per day without impacting performance.
Goal No. 3: Be an independent advocate
A big part of the issue, according to Check My Ads, is that agencies, which make money based on a cut of media spend, and tech companies selling algorithms, don’t have the best interests of brands at heart.
“Brand safety tech has gotten way overused – and it’s because they make money when it’s overused,” Atkin said.
Check My Ads will charge a flat fee for its services, a setup Atkin believes will allow it to better serve its in-house marketer clients.
“We’re unaffiliated. We’re marketers, not ad tech professionals,” she said. “We believe that algorithms are leading us astray and we need human eyeballs back on the case.”
Check My Ads wants to work directly with brands because it sees that as the best way to create the change marketers say they crave.
Sleeping Giants was an unpaid passion project – but Check My Ads is creating a business around helping brands avoid supporting fake news and misinformation that undermines democracy and leaves legitimate news sites floundering.
“The way advertising works today is not good for society, and marketers are not getting the results they think they are paying for because of the way keyword blocking works,” Jammi said.
Check My Ads solves both of these problems, she said, because it’s found that performance improves along with a more thoughtful approach to where ads appear.
“Our goal,” Jammi said, “is to help marketers reach the audiences they want to connect with in a sustainable way.”