Journalism Marketing Digital Media

Sperm Whale, Star Wars and Paddington Bear – 3 Blocklisted phrases harming journalism

By Tracy De Groose

February 4, 2020 | 8 min read

The other week I hit a new career-high. I began a speech with the opening credits to Peppa Pig. The parents in the room recoiled. The rest of the audience stared at the screen in bewilderment.

Sperm Whale, Star Wars and Paddington Bear – 3 phrases harming journalism

“Has she finally lost it?” I could sense them all thinking. The answer, I am pleased to say is no. There was a serious point to the Peppa namecheck.

As odd as it might sound 'Peppa Pig' currently sits on a blocklist for a large entertainment brand. And, what this means is that no advertising by said advertising brand can appear next to this much-loved, iconic TV character.

It’s hard to tell why Peppa is actually on the list – there has been some suggestion that Peppa has gone all ‘gangsta’ on us. To be clear I wasn’t participating in the IAB’s Digital Trust Forum to shoot down blocklists – I couldn’t use that phrase anyway – or content verification technology.

They certainly have an important role to play. However, I wanted to shine a light on the unintended consequences blocklists are having on journalism. In attempt to keep things simple the tech platforms have created an advertising model that treats all content as being the same, with a focus on impressions.

As a result, quality and editorially governed journalism has found itself bundled together with the increasingly “wild west” of unregulated content, and then sold to advertisers as one amorphous mass.

For advertisers, the alarm bells started ringing a couple of years back when they began to see their ads popping up in some surprisingly odd places. At this point the murmurs around context started.

Today those murmurs have given way to open, voluble conversations around why context matters with regards to brand safety, trust, effectiveness and return on investment.

And more ethically, more of us are thinking about what content our advertising investment is funding. In this current digital model, there is little attention to the quality of the content or the provenance of that content. There is no distinction between crafted journalism – that adheres to ethical standards, editorial codes, regulators and the law – and bedroom bloggers, amateur producers and at the extreme end, criminal content.

In fact, I would argue we need to consciously uncouple editorial content from all the unregulated content. Journalism, by its very nature is word heavy. Our business model is words. Words that are consumed by 44 million people a week across a broad range of titles and topics.

The impact of blocklists is much more significant on us because journalists will always want to have the freedom to use the right words to tell their stories regardless of the consequences of ad revenue. And shouldn’t we all want to keep it that way? A free press sits at the heart of our democracy.

In fact, it was The Times brand safety expose in 2017 that highlighted how programmatic technology was unwittingly funding terrorism, supremacism and pornography. I am sure the irony isn't lost on you, but this expose led to the proliferation and widespread use of blocklists that is now harming journalism.

The problem with this sudden knee-jerk reaction was that we reduced a complicated issue like brand safety to the lowest common denominator. Advertisers created extensive blocklists, so did agencies, content verification companies and publishers. You may believe longer and longer lists, that now go well up into thousands of words, equals greater rigour. But I am not sure this is the reality.

Firstly, because it has all become incredibly time-consuming and complicated. The lists are not updated frequently enough meaning words aren’t taken down when they should be. At this rate journalists will run out of words they can use.

Secondly, it’s also ruling out the right sort of content for advertisers where innocent phrases and words are getting impacted by the black and white approach of blocklists.

Therefore, safe content is being redefined as not safe. Because the context of these words and phrases has been lost. And it’s a very real issue. A recent report by The Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore, reckons UK publishers missed out on an estimated £170m last year due to ad blocking.

That’s about one in every £5 of ad revenue lost, at a time when journalism is needed more now than ever. As the title to this article alludes Sperm Whale, Star Wars and Paddington Bear are all victims of blocklists.

We also have a serious problem with the world of Westminster. Despite politics dominating the news agenda in 2019 – you know Boris, Brexit and the general election – one publisher told me that their advertising “yields are very low in politics which suggests a relatively “high risk” based on universal keyword blocklists”.

Blocklists – with the best of intentions – don’t consider delicate nuances. The team over at Reach found that many sports stories were being erroneously blocked. Words like “strip” and “shoot” were stopping ads from appearing against entirely safe football reports. Additionally, articles about “Manchester” were also being routinely blocked due to the 2017 Manchester arena terrorism attack.

Too often quality content environments and context are ignored. Content verification systems are being unwittingly misused or misunderstood. And safe quality journalism is missing out. Some news sites are seeing up to 60% block rates.

Quality journalism is being penalised. Storytelling is being strangulated. And an important pillar of our democracy is being compromised. And advertisers are arguably losing out on effectiveness according to our neuro-based research.

People spend 45 seconds with ads in hard news versus 32 seconds with soft news. Both are significantly higher than the industry’s online viewability standard - at least 50% of an ad must be in view for a minimum of 1 second.

Of course, we know advertising in news environments works. In the “olden days”, choices on where to advertise were made on some fundamental principles. With the advent of digital some of those fundamentals appear to have been lost, dismantled or discarded altogether.

Last year, I sat on a panel last with Mark Evans from Direct Line where we discussed the lost art of media planning. In an era where there is a plethora of choice to reach consumers, it seems that “where” you advertise has been demoted.

Throughout my career as a marketer “where” in news mattered. In the case of Boddingtons it was outside back covers. And Stella Artois alongside film content in newspapers and online. The news brand context gets you noticed. And remembered.

We need to be more considered, intelligent and thoughtful in how our brand safety tools can and should evolve. Blunt tools are having significant, unintended consequences. To the tune of £170m according to The Merrick report.

The recently published White Paper by the Content Verification Working Group – an industry-wide response – is a serious step in the right direction. It is the first consistent, standardised and joined-up approach that will help to mitigate the negative impact on publishers while retaining safeguards for brands.

Reach, who launched an AI driven brand safety platform last year, is seeing a 40% uplift in stories cleared for advertising that would have otherwise been blocked. With more publishers looking to use the platform this can only be good news for the industry.

And, editors themselves are now red-flagging online editorial that they don’t feel is appropriate for advertising. As an industry we are taking the issues very seriously. But we need to speed up the progress.

In a world of fake news, misinformation and propaganda, trusted journalism matters more now than ever before. Record audiences – that have grown by 10% over the last ten years – are relying on news brands for the analysis, news and information they can trust.

31 million people a day trust news to represent them. To inform. To entertain. To campaign. To raise the issues that matter. To hold power to account.

Isn’t it time we all challenged the impact blunt tools are having on quality journalism and stop the slippery slide into some sort of advertising-induced censorship of the free press?

Tracy De Groose is the executive chair of Newsworks.

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