Hey Advertisers, Where’s Your Backbone?
In a rather chilling story, 404 Media is reporting on the impact of ‘Brand Safety’ and ‘Suitability’ on publications like Jezebel, forcing them to shut down.
I won’t go over all the details. You should read it directly for yourself. But the basic gist is that scaredy-cat advertisers are using algorithms to automatically identify problematic content, and not advertise along side of it.
At first, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. If you’re selling health products, it may seem logical to not want your ads running alongside stories about death.
In the old days, this was handled by manual review. Advertisers would actually see a proof of how their ad would appear and alongside what content, and could flag it when the messages conflicted. Crucially, it rarely meant pulling their ads entirely. Instead, it would usually just mean shuffling where the ads showed up.
But today, this is handled programmatically. And the problem with that is when you discover just exactly what is considered problematic:
Death, injury, or military conflict
Anything that could arouse negative feelings like violence, anger, hatred, disgust, shame, or fear
Arms and ammunition
Sensitive social issues
Protests and demonstrations
Adult or sexual content
Crime and harm acts, including human rights violations
Obscenity and profanity
Illegal drugs, tobacco, vapes, alcohol
Spam or harmful content
You may look at that list and think it’s quite reasonable. There are certainly a few categories that I’d be sympathetic to, such as not wanting to support hate speech.
But here’s the problem: Imagine a world where none of the above is ever covered by the media anymore.
See, as much as news organizations want to be objective and impartial, they still need to make money and pay the bills. Which means they can only be as impartial as their advertisers will allow them to be. If advertisers refuse to run their ads alongside such topics, the media can’t financially support their coverage.
It’s really a simple tradeoff, and its worked well until now. The media writes about important stuff, and advertisers bankroll them for the benefit of showing ads to their audience. It all falls apart when advertisers refuse to advertise alongside anything controversial.
We need coverage of politics. We need coverage of sexuality. We need coverage of criminality. We need coverage of narcotics.
These are important social issues, and chicken-shit advertisers are setting up the Fifth Estate to effectively abandon these subjects or be defunded.
A Call to Arms
This is a challenge to all advertisers: Grow a backbone. As advertisers, we play a vital role in our democracies. When we support independent news coverage by advertising alongside it, we are supporting keeping the public well informed.
A well informed public is vital to democracy and the best defence against tyranny. That’s why tyrants love to lie and horde information.
If you care about freedom and democracy; if you want your children to live in a world that is better than the one you were born in; if you want to see humanity continue to progress; then you have the responsibility to advertise alongside risky news coverage.
If we don’t, then we deserve all the hate and distrust that the public has for advertisers. We’ll have earned our spot on the list of shittiest and most harmful industries. And it would be a shame, because we’re actually vital to protecting society.
In case I’m being too subtle: Advertisers are the key to a free press. A free press is key to a functioning democracy. If you care about those things, and you should if you have any decency about you, then you should put your money where your mouth is and support journalism by allowing your ads to run alongside their content.