Feature

Tackling LGBT+ blocklists: publishers and agencies rally against digital censorship

As blocklists continue to pose big challenges for LGBT+ publishers and advertisers, The Drum explores how the ad industry is battling ad censorship.

With one in four advertising dollars now going to the Facebook-Google duopoly, it’s proving increasingly hard for publishers to keep their head above water. For LGBT+ titles, though, another challenge is emerging in the form of overzealous blocklists.

Titles like Attitude and PinkNews face having as much as 73% of their stories flagged as ‘brand unsafe’ with terms like ‘lesbian’ ‘bisexual’ and ‘drag queens’ making it onto advertisers’ keyword exclusion ‘naughty’ lists, according to recent research from real-time brand safety business Cheq.

In their quest for protection from ad misplacement, advertisers around the globe are doubling down on automated tech to tackle the issue. Well-intended as this is, there’s no question it’s creating problems for clients and publishers alike.

‘Sex’, ‘violence‘, ‘death‘, ‘alcohol‘, ‘slavery‘, ‘kill‘, ‘injury‘, ‘shoot‘, ‘disaster‘ and ‘bastards‘ – are just some of the keywords brands are choosing not to advertise against in 2020. Though such blockage is shielding brands from potential association with illegal or nasty content, it’s also creating a deficit of support for hard-hitting journalism.

For LGBT+ publishers – who are already fighting to thrive amid cuts, layoffs and closures – this kind of censorship poses an existential threat and they’re taking it upon themselves to find a solution.

New media networks like Brand Advance, billed as the first dedicated global diversity media network, have emerged, offering brands an opportunity to connect with more diverse audiences. Elsewhere, traditional media agencies like Mindshare have unveiled their own LGBT+ anti-blacklist marketplace, which aggregates publishers into one negotiated inclusion list so that brands support LGBT-specific publications.

When every day, crucial LGBT+ terms unnecessarily censored, can brands and specialist publishers counteract this new age of digital censorship? Or are they trying to fix something that will always be broken?

Impact of the rapid blocklist proliferation

In January Cheq revealed that nearly three-quarters (73%) of neutral or positive LGBT+ online new stories are incorrectly flagged due to blocklists.

Covering 15 major media sites, including PinkNews, Gay Star News and Advocate, Cheq ran an industry-standard blacklist of 2000 words, and ran it against 225 neutral or positive online articles on a single news day.

“The rapid proliferation and widespread use of blacklists, spurred on by the Times brand safety exposé, meant a complicated issue like brand safety was reduced to the lowest common denomination,” explains Newsworks chief executive, Tracy De Groose. “No distinction was made between edited and regulated content and unregulated, user-generated content.”

She says that as well as treating all content the same, the context of words and phrases used had been lost in the blunt approach to blocklists, and the knock-on effect is those “niche sites, serving important communities and audiences are starved of much needed advertising revenue. And brands are missing out on reaching them.”

What does this mean for online publishers?

“On the web, we lose about 50% of ad sales,” admits Benjamin Cohen, who has served as chief executive and editor of the PinkNews for 15 years.

“It’s quite detrimental, and it doesn’t really make sense,” he adds, referring to a story about Ruth Hunt, the chief exec of Stonewall, whose nomination for peerage on Theresa May’s resignation was blocked by advertisers because it contained the word lesbian nine times.

“Basically, from an ad blocking perspective, lesbian equals porn. It’s very crude,” Cohen details. “If [we] wrote a story about lesbian sexual health, [it would] definitely be blocked.”

And it works both ways. While publishers are losing out on ad revenue, brands are failing to reach audiences that might resonate best with their brands. “The issue that ad networks are going to face is that only two-thirds of Gen Z identify as heterosexual. And these consumers are going to be increasingly hard to reach.”

Cohen puts the responsibility on the shoulders of ad networks who control the blocklists, not the tech and social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat which have already invested in preventing the problem.

“The programmatic systems are where the problem is,” Cohen insists. “If we can deal with the big agencies and get them to do that on a conglomerate wide basis, that will be very helpful.”

Since July 2018, PinkNews has been on Snapchat which it sees as a “primary focus” as a great deal of its readership is Gen Z. On the fact that Snapchat is unaffected by blocklists, Cohen explains that the platform only works with curated lists of a very small number of publisher partners, and has very strict content guidelines that we need to apply, so it can be sure that all the content is brand safe.

Cohen envisages a ‘safe’ list of publishers as a way for brands to get around the blocklists. “While some LGBT+ titles like Gay Times or Attitude put out content that some advertisers might not want to be associated with, but because our content gets picked up by Snapchat, we need to ensure our content is safe for 13 year olds,” he says. “It wouldn’t be difficult to make a list of trusted players, that by default, everything is suitable.”

Despite the hit that PinkNews takes from LGBT+ blocklists, “In the long run, we don’t see programmatic ads as the way we’re going to make money,” Cohen admits. ”We expect to make more money from advertising our own products and services, you can already buy our T shirts and pin badges.

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Steps in the right direction

Big networks have already started to work on their own solutions. Mindshare USA has developed a LGBT+ private marketplace (PMP) to address the issue raised by LGBT+ blocklists, which has been picked up by its UK counterpart. The PMP aggregates publishers into one negotiated inclusion list so that brands support LGBT-specific publications as well as the LGBT+ content at broader publications.

“I’d be lying if I said, in the UK, it was completely 100% done,” admits Mindshare UK’s chief exec, Jem Lloyd Williams. “We’re in the finishing stages of negotiating the different technical disruptions you’d expect from a normal private marketplace. We’ve been taking advice from our own LGBT+ community.”

Skyy Vodka is the first-mover and launch brand for the PMP, who has added it to its media plan for its ‘Proudly American’ marketing campaign.

Calling it a first of its kind series of ‘inclusion PMPs’ Mindshare is hoping to fully roll it out by 2021, to drive more media dollars to minority and marginalised groups

“It’s not something we’re trying to gain commercial advantage from,” Lloyd-Willilam assures on Mindshare’s motivations. “It’s the right thing to do for our clients, and it's the right thing for us to do as a business because we want to be as inclusive as we can.”

Whether the media agency will share its knowledge with other agencies, or encourage them to follow suit, Lloyd William said “It’s from Mindshare, but it’s for everybody. It isn’t something we can patent, it’s the right thing to do for our clients. I would be super happy if other agencies would do it too.”

Mindshare is not alone. Chris Kenna, the founder of Brand Advance, believes the answer is actually quite simple. Talking at the ISBA annual conference last week (27 February) Kenna said “you take all the publications and platforms - the reason the word is blocked and you can’t reach that contextually relevant environment is that it’s in among the internet.”

He detailed how the team at Brand Advance took 500 publications and platforms that pull in a billion people each month and put them on another ad server, walled the garden to ensure everything with it was brand safe, to combat the problem.

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