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The brand safety pendulum has swung too far for news

In 1987 the head of the American Family Association (AFP) circulated pictures of Mighty Mouse snorting a powdered substance from a flower, changing Mighty Mouse from a depressed mouse to happy mouse. Arguing that it appeared that the cartoon character was using cocaine, AFP feared that this could encourage children to become “coke fiends.”They pressured CBS to cut the scene from future shows. The controversy tainted the show, leading to its cancellation mid-way through season two.

This is an example of a consumer group fighting against what they believe to be unacceptable programming. TV networks often defend their programming, and when a network stands its ground, the next path for these groups has been to target the advertisers. The ad industry helps fund the creation of content, and if advertisers don’t support the content, the content goes away. We have seen this recently with Laura Ingraham’s radio show.

Most brand managers and marketers have always been cautious about adjacencies; they want to attract consumers to their product, not attract consumer backlash against their product. This is not a new phenomenon; this is brand safety.

Advertisers have long requested to stay away from some news sites due to their political slant. A political party alliance is not in and of itself the problem, but rather the controversial nature and tone of the news outlet is what puts them on the radar for advertisers. Ingraham is a conservative, but it was her words and venom that got her in trouble, not her party affiliation. Hate has always been a zero tolerance for advertisers.

An alcohol beverage ad next to drunk driving story or a dating site ad next to a date rape story are unfortunate events. This is page-level contextual advertising at its worst, but not a long-term branding issue. To avoid page-level unfortunate events, advertisers now have chosen hundreds and thousands of key words to avoid. This page-level approach has led to unfairly hurting good news publishers. “Snowflakes” is a word often associated with click hate and extreme partisan sites. It is often a term on, wait for it… weather sites. Do you want to block weather sites?

What is being reported is often salacious and vulgar, but fuck, it is our new reality. I just swore and I apologize that an ad was likely blocked on this page for that sole reason. But what about when a president calls another country a ‘shithole’? What are advertisers supposed to do? Block the news? He said it. His hate is not the publication’s hate.

We are talking about news as a category, not a mouse doing drugs on kids programming. News sites report bad news every day. News on some, not all, reputable media outlets has become more aggressive and controversial since late 2016. The association to a news story is not what brands should be worried about. The backlash and boycott won’t impact you if you are buying news sites that are reporting fact-based news. It is the tone and intent of the storytelling, either from an individual reporter or at the publication level, that should be important to groups and advertisers.

In the past year or so, the brand safety pendulum has swung too far for news. Major news organizations, and more specifically local news stations, are getting choked as a result of advertisers’ brand safety constraints.

Media buyers, you must understand the intent of the domain before you select or reject. I am not advocating for you to buy all news sites; some sites might not be a good fit for your brand. News is a great reach and frequency vehicle, so abandoning news altogether will hurt. Don’t run away from news, just approach it differently. We can live without Mighty Mouse, but we can’t live without news.

Marc Goldberg is chief executive officer of Trust Metrics