Advertisers need to take a stronger stance against fake news

Brands too often play a passive role in the placement of their digital advertising, relying on media agencies, programmatic buying and ad tech vendors to sort out the details.

Since the election, fake news has become one of the most talked about subjects in media. Some of the biggest players in advertising, including Facebook and Google, have said they are banning fake news sites that spread misinformation from their ad networks. Ad tech firm AppNexus, along with brands like Allstate, Kellogg’s, SoFi and ModCloth, have said they won’t advertise on Breitbart, which has come under wide criticism as a hyperpartisan and misleading site after Trump's appointment of its chairman, Steve Bannon, as chief strategist.

While these are admirable first steps, advertisers should take greater responsibility for their digital advertising and the sites they support to make sure their ads aren’t funding the worst offenders. Taking such a stand isn’t necessarily easy, and the move, depending on the site, can be a political one. Kellogg’s faced a backlash when Breitbart and its supporters "declared war" against the company and called for a boycott of its products. The fear of such retaliation may keep some marketers from entering the fray, but it shouldn’t. Their role in the digital ecosystem is too important.

Brands need to recognize that they are participating in the erosion of quality content online with their ad dollars. Some fake news creators have claimed they’ve made between $10,000 and $30,000 a month. That’s ad revenue that other, more legitimate publishers desperately need. For every dollar going to shady sites, that’s one dollar not going to credible outlets. Brands should get more involved in their media plans and know where their ads are being placed.

Marketers often play a passive role in the placement of their digital advertising, relying on media agencies, programmatic buying and ad tech vendors to sort out the details. It’s understandable. After all, it’s nearly impossible to monitor where all digital ads are placed, and the supply chain is complicated. But as we well know, the devil is in the details. Instances of fraud and viewability can evade even the best media agencies, as fraudsters stay one step ahead of brand safety tools and other safeguards.  

Advertisers can be proactive by creating blacklists of sites they don’t want to support, but it’s not always a guarantee that their ads won’t run on them. The problem, according to Digiday, stems in part from the fact that "agencies and performance marketing vendors aren’t always incentivized to use them, since much of digital media buying is still premised on cheap reach." 

Some brands have been asking agencies and ad tech specialists for help in battling this fake news problem, but if the vendors and agencies aren’t incentivized to enforce them, then marketers need to do so themselves. They need to arm themselves with internal expertise, with execs and employees that not only know the intricacies of the digital ecosystem, but can also hold themselves and their vendors accountable.

Marketers could also ask for monthly reports of where media has been placed. They could still buy programmatically and also use a private marketplace to help ensure better buys. Or they could do more direct buys, though that might require more effort. Many brands are doing these things now, but not enough of them. Some would rather not get involved and deflect blame to agencies and vendors.

Of course, there’s no real way to stop the creation of fake news sites. Even if they are thwarted, their creators could rapidly launch dozens of new sites that pop back up on exchanges. Instead of blacklisting sites, brands could instead create whitelists to ensure their ads are placed only on sites of their choosing. 

This fake news crisis is all happening as traditional news organizations and media companies still grapple with the viability of their businesses in the digital and social age; even the digital-native ones are not exempt from this existential crisis. Old media companies have looming layoffs. And investors of newer ventures anxiously await return on their investments.  

Advertisers have a responsibility in the digital ad ecosystem, and that should include ensuring their brands don't support fraudulent news sites. Funnel that money instead to more legitimate places, with more acceptable ad formats. Educate the marketing department and recruit media experts to hold vendors accountable. Put pressure on agencies to demand that their vendors are acting in the best interests of their clients. Hire people who can find the holes in the digital ad supply chain and make sure they’re not exploited. It’s not easy, but the effort could go a long way.

—Maureen Morrison is senior editor at San Francisco-based Muhtayzik Hoffer. She was previously a reporter at Ad Age, covering everything from the agency business to digital and mobile advertising to marketing in the food industry.

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