Interpublic Group's IPG Mediabrands and The Wall Street Journal's publisher, Dow Jones, are both experimenting with alternatives to word blacklisting – a practice borne out of brand safety concerns that has led to the defunding of legitimate news platforms.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported on advertisers’ growing aversion to publishing their content next to certain words and phrases on publishers’ sites. Top words blacklisted by advertisers include ‘dead’, ‘shooting’, ‘murder’, ‘gun’ and ‘rape’, according to data from Integral Ad Science.
The practice aims to protect advertisers from appearing to endorse content that is fake, offensive, highly political or sensitive, having been burned as a community from past incidents on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.
However, the Journal reported, such blacklists are becoming "more sophisticated, specific and extensive”. This means the amount of sellable media space on established news sites that cover topics such as war and political upheaval has been diminished. This has begun to hurt their revenues.
Blacklists have been harmful to publications covering topics outside of current affairs, too.
Guthrie Collin, the chief analytics officer at Dow Jones, noted that when his team began digging into the practice using the financial trade magazine Barron’s as a case study, they found a hypothetical standard blacklist would block advertising on 15-20% of the site’s content.
“[The journalists] could write something like, ‘death to the earnings of...’ or ‘it's killing their margin’ and that would be blocked,” he said.
As an alternative, the publisher has begun experimenting with sentiment-based targeting. This means advertisers can review not only the overarching sentiment of an article (whether that be lighthearted, critical, opinionated, and so on), but the sentiment towards a brand, industry or topic within the article itself.
“Key words really are a problem if you're trying to get your message in the right context,” Collin said. “So, the sentiment targeting aspect, which is really hard at scale ... is all about allowing you to take the theme of an article and layer that in with the right sentiment.
“You may want to reach someone with a certain message when they're in crisis mode, for instance, or reach them when they're in a sunny disposition. But at least you have choice and we give you an ability to have that choice.”
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal – a fellow Dow Jones title – has been taking extra steps to guarantee a brand safe environment advertisers. Faced with the prospect of state-of-the-art deep fake technology fooling its journalists, the paper has put together a team of experts who have been trained in how to spot “deep fakes, deep audio and any other type of synthetic media”.
This team sits within the Journal’s newsroom and is on hand for journalists to consult if they’re presented with a video or piece of content that is potentially fake. The journalists themselves have also been given extra training in understanding and spotting deep fakery, said Collin.
Greenlighting, not blacklisting
Meanwhile, IPG Mediabrands in the UK has begun work to ease its clients back into advertising on news sites – providing they are legitimate. It has teamed up with BrandGuard, the spinoff of NewsGuard, which is a tool that rates the general trustworthiness of news sites.
“BrandGuard is essentially a list of legitimate ... sites that advertisers can use in the comfort that these have been vetted by a team of independent journalists,” said Gordon Crovitz, the co-chief executive of NewsGuard.
Crovitz, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, argued this independently-vetted whitelist is a necessary safeguard given that blacklists still allow for advertiser content to appear on dubious news sites such as the Russian-owned RT and Sputnick if the specified keywords are absent from their articles.
“IPG Mediabrands UK has clients who would like to be able to support legitimate journalistic enterprises but have pulled back because of the risk of ending up alongside fake news,” he said. “Using the BrandGuard ‘green list’, they can now return to supporting legitimate journalistic websites with their advertising.”
Crovitz noted the British media division of IPG was the first agency to sign up to the initiative.
“I hope there'll be more,” he added, “and I hope it will end up enabling marketers to support journalism as was once done.”