In 2016, during the last US presidential election, Donald Trump blasted what he deemed as “fake news” outlets while sharing links from his favoured alt-right source, Breitbart. In response, ad spend activist group Sleeping Giants was formed to make explicitly clear to household brands that they were complicit in funding hate through advertising on the site, next to racist and bigoted stories.
Founded as a means to demonetise far-right blogs that were granted scale and legitimacy by tech giants who allowed them to plug into their ad networks, the group soon amassed 300,000 social followers which helped in putting pressure on brands.
It remained anonymous until July 2018, which is when co-founder Matt Rivitz – a freelance creative formerly of TBWA/Chiat/Day and Goodby Silverstein & Partners – was doxxed by Tucker Carlson’s right-wing news site The Daily Caller after Sleeping Giants worked to deter advertisers from his Fox News show (which has since lost more than 70 advertisers).
Now, in 2019, brand safety is heavily debated by top marketers and Sleeping Giant’s policing of the space, in addition to YouTube directly placing ads next to extremist and illicit content, has helped shape the discussion.
Meanwhile, premium publishers now cite the 'brand safety' and 'quality' of their ecosystems when courting brands, all too aware that ad exchanges have been pumping impressions through lower quality sites that risk damaging advertisers.
The Drum catches up with the marketer Nandini Jammi, who co-founded Sleeping Giants with Rivitz, at the Turing Fest in Edinburgh where she expresses frustration that marketers do not sufficiently audit their media – if they did, there would be no need for Sleeping Giants.
Shining a light on the Breitbart mission, documents received by BuzzFeed in 2017 expose it as a white supremacy vehicle. According to Jammi, the site is “funded by white supremacists and written by white supremacists" and is simply "not a news outlet”. Emails and documents in the report "clearly show that Breitbart does more than tolerate the most hate-filled, racist voices of the alt-right – it thrives on them, fuelling and being fuelled by some of the most toxic beliefs on the political spectrum and clearing the way for them to enter the American mainstream.”
Hate is proving increasingly less profitable – for Breitbart at least. Early in August, the Wrap reported that Breitbart had lost 72% of its audience since Trump was elected, from 17.3 million unique monthly visitors a month in January 2017 to 4.9 million in June 2019. Furthermore, its former chairman Steve Bannon this year admitted its ad revenues were down about 90% due to the effectiveness of the boycott. In 2017, Sleeping Giants claimed it had deterred 2,500 advertisers from Breitbart.
But while the site is down it is not out and has grown its audience for the first time in 27 months. Google's network still readily delivers ads (although it is difficult to find a recognisable brand there now), RevContent serves up links from around the web, and the title raises money through merch on a Shopify-hosted store.
But recently, and most prominently, a leading adtech firm has elected to again serve the site ads through its exchange. In 2016, AppNexus blocked Breitbart after conducting a human audit and citing hate speech, saying: “There were enough articles and headlines that cross that line." Breitbart chief executive Larry Solov at the time responded that it “always and continues to condemn racism and bigotry in any form”. But an AT&T acquisition and a rebrand to Xandr and Breitbart has been reinstated to the AppNexus network in a roundabout fashion after it “satisfied requirements”.
“That's a whole new shit-show.” Jammi adds: “Brands have told us they don't want to be on there so they are not going to be happy to find out that’s the case again."
Some say Sleeping Giants is trying to suppress right-leaning and conservative titles. Jammi disputes this, saying: “Our campaign is apolitical. It is nonpartisan. We welcome opposing viewpoints.” She adds: “We don't believe racism and bigotry are opposing viewpoints. They don't belong in the discourse; they shouldn't be paid for and they shouldn't be profitable.
“We very strongly believe that our campaign has been as strong as it is because it's anti-hate and that's something that anyone can get behind.
“We present information to our brands and we ask them if it aligns with their values. If it doesn't, we ask them what they will do about it. It is their decision, but we use our leverage to create pressure so the decision is totally visible.”
The excuse that 'this is just how programmatic advertising works,' is less frequently used after several years of campaigning. It has taken marketers to hold the world of marketing to account, says Jammi. “I do product marketing, messaging and developing campaigns and Sleeping Giants has been about really staying on message.” It is easy to forget that this is a marketing campaign and won gold at Cannes Lions in the social and influencer category.
Jammi refuses to share how many people are in Sleeping Giants, but thanks its 245,000 Twitter supporters, 60,000 Facebook supporters and cells across the globe.
“I don't want to do this forever," she says. "I would like to stop and move on with my life, but, before I do, businesses and brands need to understand the scope of the problem they're facing. They need to take back control of their ads and what they're monetising. And tech platforms need to take back control of who they enable and work with.”
And these issues don't just face online advertising alone. Fox News has been the subject of numerous TV ad boycotts, although Fox Corp's Lachlan Murdoch claims they "are not having a financial impact of any significance".
Jammi tells the story of a German company that obliviously ended up on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “Because of the boycott it was one of the cheapest places to put your ads on TV. We called them out and it turns out they just didn't know. Their leadership wasn't aware what they were advertising on.
“Brands need to be aware and coordinate with their media buys and with their agencies. They need to set standards effectively.”
This response from Dell illustrates the relationship the group has with brands.
Jammi adds: “I don't get paid to do this. None of us do. It's ridiculous. It's not our job to police their brand. You can't rely on a volunteer army.”
The likes of Google and Facebook have a lot to answer for, she claims. “They dominate the narrative right now. What they're doing isn't working because they don't enforce their rules.” She said this days before two far-right content creators were remonetised on YouTube.
Jammi blames a reluctance to have political conversations in the workplace for these shortcomings and outlines that hate speech does not belong anywhere on the political spectrum. In the UK, the Daily Express' editor Gary Jones has dialled down Islamaphobic and anti-immigrant stories at the newspaper without alienating it from its base, much to the chagrin of another activist group, Stop Funding Hate.
But Jammi is concerned another Breitbart could crop up under the tech giants’ watch. Just last month CNN published research claiming that “extremist and disinformation websites” raise $235m a year through advertising.
“Breitbart was able to successfully enter the mainstream because its articles look like news. It was a verified source for information on Facebook and Twitter and it was still in Google News algorithm. So I can find articles from the New York Times and from Breitbart in the same search. A normal person can't tell the difference.”
As a final piece of advice to marketers, she concludes: "You have to conduct an audit into where your money is going, where you're putting your money across your marketing mix from online ads to TV ads to what you're partnering with, your sponsorship and who you're associating with before you get involved. It is additional work. That's what brand safety is.”