Research finds world's biggest brands have no idea where their ads run

While funding disinformation and bad-faith sites at the same time.

New research out today from Newsguard, a company started in 2018 from journalists-turned-entrepreneurs Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz that uses the alchemy of human beings and artificial intelligence to sift through roughly 7500 news stories per day to find ‘fake news’, found that the world’s biggest brands had their ads run on disinformation sites during the election. 

The company’s analysis found that “many of the world’s largest and most trusted brands have been financially supporting websites, including sites funded by the Russian government, that spread election-fraud myths and conspiracy theories—placing thousands of programmatic ads on these sites during the period leading up to and following the 2020 election.”

Color me shocked. 

First reported by Axios, Newsguard said that “from Oct. 1, 2020 through today, 1,668 brands ran 8,776 unique ads on the 160 sites flagged” in its system.

(And ad for Uber Eats runs on The Gateway Pundit)

Newsguard found

The brands advertising on the largest number of election misinformation sites were Progressive Insurance, which ran 298 ads across 25 separate election misinformation sites, and Planned Parenthood, which ran 71 ads across 18 of the sites. But brands funding election misinformation spanned a wide range of categories and industries.

AARP, for example, had 57 ads on 16 election misinformation sites, according to Newsguard; sites like OANN, ZeroHedge and The Gateway Pundit. Harvard had 10 ads on OANN. 

Walmart ran ads on 11 election misinformation sites, including, a site that has claimed, among other falsehoods, that the CIA worked with Democrats to change voting machine results and that COVID-19 was planned by Bill Gates and other billionaires.

Procter & Gamble ran ads on multiple election misinformation sites, including, a site that has pushed false claims about voting machines and previously published falsehoods about COVID-19.

Disney, which prides itself on its apolitical and family-friendly brand, placed ads on multiple sites with election misinformation, including—a site that, prior to publishing election falsehoods, published claims that COVID-19 was a hoax and promoted false cures for the virus.

Newsguard calls out DoubleClick as a particularly egregious offender, placing ads on more that 80 percent of these sites, adding “ads served by The Trade Desk appeared on more than half.” 

And I’ll also pause here to note that Newsguard mentions in its announcement that it has a product that can help brands and agencies navigate these rough misinformation waters.

Of course, not to be pushed out of the spotlight, BuzzFeed reported yesterday that Facebook has also been making money from questionable ads. 

Facebook has been running ads for body armor, gun holsters, and other military equipment next to content promoting election misinformation and news about the attempted coup at the US Capitol, despite internal warnings from concerned employees.

In the aftermath of an attempted insurrection by President Donald Trump’s supporters last week at the US Capitol building, Facebook has served up ads for defense products to accounts that follow extremist content, according to the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit watchdog group. Those ads — which include New Year’s specials for specialized body armor plates, rifle enhancements, and shooting targets — were all delivered to a TTP Facebook account used to monitor right-wing content that could incite violence.

Facebook told BuzzFeed that its “‘teams are working to stay ahead of any militia groups that try to evade’ the social network’s ban.”

She added, "We don’t allow ads that praise, support, or represent militarized social movements, and ban ads that promote the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives."

We are at the point where we know ad-tech has had a deleterious effect on our industry and society. The question then becomes: what to do about it?

As Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin of CheckMyAds, a consultancy helping companies know where their ads end up, constantly remind us, the ad verification companies are selling vapor.

It appears that brand safety technology cannot tell the difference between actual offensive content and journalists reporting on the issues to inform the public. 

Two publishers racing to solve this problem, not only for them but for advertisers: Vox Media and The Washington Post.

In response to Newsguard’s findings, Vox’s COO Trei Brundrett posted on Twitter:

If you get what you pay for and you don’t know what you’re buying, you might end up with a trash fire. 

Advertising adjacent to high quality journalism from trusted publishers at scale on the open web is the answer to this problem and it’s called @Concert. Concert reaches 85%+ of US digital audience w/ a curated publisher list of only trusted, premium national & local sites.

Concert Ad Manager is a new self-service tool to easily build & run your ad campaigns at scale across those premium publishers.

The Washington Post’s Jarrod Dicker makes his pitch:

we've brought together 130+ local publishers (& growing) through a universal framework that guarantees transparency, premium inventory & viewability on cookie-less pipes.

brands can just log-in & go. 

@zeus is the future marketplace for publishers and advertisers. join us.

It’s hard to not see ad-tech as a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Just because you can run your ad on thousands of websites at the fraction of a second doesn’t mean you have to. And with publishers making the business case to build out their own marketplace, it’ll be interesting to see how others respond. Of course, this idea is nothing new. Complex Media, for instance, had a private ad network in the early 2010s across its 100ish sites. 

When I take a step back, I think about Chris Rock’s solution to gun violence: bullet control. $5,000 a bullet; because if a bullet cost $5000 there would be no more innocent bystanders. 

What if we changed the incentives? Instead of monetizing every page with garbage inventory, we retooled our design. What if we made our sites so that people not only didn’t get pissed at all the ads, pop-ups, auto-plays, interstitials, but also wanted to come back every day? What if we actually put our readers first, and then built our models understanding our audience. 

In other words: Let’s say you are a B2B media company with an industry workforce of 2 million people. if you get 5 million uniques a month, you should know that these are not your readers, so why would you sell against it? (And buyers, why would you buy if at least 3 million of those readers do not care for your products or services.)  

Perhaps a better conversation is understanding who your repeat readers are; who are the people that come to your site every day or every week. 

I understand this is easier said than done, especially at companies run by private equity firms who don’t have patience to build a lasting media company. But the reliance on ad tech—for both brands and publishers—to remove ‘friction’ doesn’t cut it any more. We see the results. 

Related: non-media tech companies like Stripe, PayPal and Square pulled the plug on supporting “groups or individuals promoting hate or violence,” according to NBC News

Payment companies are a part of our ecosystem, and Michael Hayden, spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center sums it up:

Hayden also noted that there are financial benefits to the steps payment companies are finally making. “Taking aggressive steps to make sure your company is not fueling an insurrection strikes me as being good business," he said 

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox today, and every day. If you have tips, or thoughts on the newsletter, drop me a line. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you arrived here via social media or a colleague, please consider signing up. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you tomorrow. 

Garcia/Grisman, “The Thrill is Gone”

Some Interesting Links:

For media criticism:

  • How the press can hold Trump’s enablers—and itself—to account (CJR)

For apps behaving badly:

  • Period tracking app settles charges it lied to users about privacy (The Verge)

  • MeWe Sold Itself on Privacy. Then the Radical Right Arrived. (One Zero)

For media companies introducing brand studios:

  • Axios Wants to Help Companies Write Like Its Reporters—for $10,000 a Year, or More (WSJ)

For newsletters with 135,000 more subscribers than this one:

  • Corporations’ Political Reckoning Began With a Newsletter (Bloomberg)

For brands who actually listen to their customers:

  • Taco Bell partnering with Beyond Meat to create plant-based protein (MarketWatch)