August 21, 2019
What We’re Reading This Week
We know advertisers control the media, right? I mean, it’s all very vague and Orwellian, but that doesn’t shock anyone…right? Apart from the more apparent ways corporations control content, there is another, more subtle tactic: keyword blacklists.
Large advertisers, like Fidelity, avoid online ad placement near controversial content. That is, content they deem to be controversial. According to The Journal, Fidelity’s 2019 list consists of more than 400 “bad words.” These are words like “bomb,” “racism,” and “Trump.”
Back in 2017, several large companies drew attention to Google and YouTube’s advertisement placement. Coke, Pepsi, Walmart, and a host of other brands created news by suspending their Google ad spending until the company could put processes in place to prevent their logos from appearing next to questionable or offensive content.
At the micro level, it’s hard to argue against this practice. Certainly, corporations have the right to control how their messages are seen. However, in the larger picture, there are chilling consequences for news sites and the people reading the news. If enough advertisers limit ad placement to the extent that it impacts revenue to news organizations, it creates an incentive to limit content that utilizes the banned words. News organizations will increasingly need to make a choice: subscribers or advertisers:
“The audiences of many online publishers grew after President Trump launched his campaign—the ‘Trump bump.’ At the same time, ‘they are losing revenue because some clients are using extensive keyword exclusion lists,’ said John Montgomery, executive vice president of global brand safety at GroupM, one of the world’s largest ad-buying firms.”
Of special concern to me is when one of those banned words is the name of the United States President:
“CNN.com, which is owned by AT&T Inc., said it deals with some advertisers whose blacklists exceed 1,000 words. Among the words advertisers most often wanted to avoid on CNN.com during the first half of the year were ‘shooting,’ ‘Mueller,’ ‘Michael Cohen’ and ‘crash.’ The most-blocked term during the time period was ‘Trump,’ which was blocked 636,636 times, CNN said.”
The good news is that some companies are firing back and not accepting deals with advertisers that want to block certain words. Vice Media, for example, recently prevented advertisers from blocking a list of 25 words. However, this approach comes with its own set of pitfalls. To me, one of the biggest issues facing our country is division. As communication becomes increasingly targeted, consumers will become more and more insulated. It is already dangerously easy for people to only consume news that supports their already established worldview. As this continues, it may make it substantially harder for people to empathize with others and appreciate different perspectives.
It’s also important to note, the initial controversy was generated by ads appearing next to content created by individuals – on YouTube and Google, not by content created by legitimate news organizations.