Many brands have instructed their agency and adtech partners to blacklist the words and character strings "coronavirus" and "Covid-19" during the global pandemic. This is an attempt to ensure their ads don’t appear alongside online content harmful to their brands, most particularly in news media. Evidence is emerging, however, that this approach is unnecessary, counterproductive and likely to have a string of unintended consequences.
A blunt tool
First, a blanket ban on ads appearing next to any content related to coronavirus is an incredibly blunt tool; a sledgehammer approach to a much more nuanced issue.
Almost all content in news – online and offline – currently has at least some reference to the pandemic. Naturally, this is because the topic is so all-consuming to all aspects of daily life, from government to business, from sport to personal finance. With the world on lockdown and so many people desperate for understanding, news brands around the world are currently experiencing record audiences.
But brands deciding to quarantine their ads from appearing alongside news content that makes any reference to coronavirus – online and offline – is an unnecessarily restrictive strategy that threatens the very existence of news brands.
Shaky future for media outlets
Many news articles mentioning Covid-19 indeed pose little or no threat to brands whose ads appear alongside them.
For example, content reporting acts of local-community heroism, advising parents how to juggle working from home with 24/7 childcare or giving recommendations on box sets to watch or online games to play are not unsafe. Yet the binary decision for a blanket ban on coronavirus-related keywords keeps brands away from any reference to the pandemic and starves well-read news outlets of much-needed revenue. News industry body Newsworks believes this could amount to £50m in the UK alone.
Many media commentators believe that one of the unintended consequences of blacklisting could be the failure of long-established news media and that advertisers have a responsibility to support journalists and journalism by refining their advertising strategy.
That’s why we are advising brands that are still able to trade and for whom it makes sense to advertise to take a more nuanced approach to the use of keyword blacklists and to their media choices. Simple application of straightforward Boolean logic in what keywords are acceptable under which circumstances – coronavirus "and/or/not" alongside or near emotive terms such as "death" versus neutral terms such as "daily exercise" – is less binary, less draconian and more effective.
Brands should also be more open to refining their approach depending on the editorial tone of particular news outlets. More premium placements are less likely to appear next to reporting delivered in a sensationalist or alarmist tone and so pose less of a risk. It is in the long tail of online media inventory that ads are more likely to appear alongside less controlled content and conspiracy theories.
Different categories of brands face different levels of risk from exposure alongside coronavirus news content.
Takeaway services such as Deliveroo or Just Eat provide a helpful service – for example, to any consumers wanting to adhere to government guidelines on lockdown and social distancing, who need to feed their family, but who have run out of energy, inspiration or ingredients for yet another home-cooked meal. And they provide an opportunity for shuttered restaurants to continue trading by creating a link between their kitchens and locked-down consumers. Advertising food-delivery services is a very different proposition from advertising life insurance or funeral-care plans.
An ad for the first alongside a Covid-19 news story is very unlikely to be screenshotted and widely shared on social media. An ad for the latter is likely to be heavily criticised and end up in the pages of satirical magazine Private Eye.
Advertising messaging in the unprecedented times we’re living through is also critical. Brands and their creative agencies have a responsibility to work hard at getting the tonality of their ads in this environment right – being helpful, providing products or services of benefit and not being opportunistic.
A supermarket or online retailer prioritising opening hours or online deliveries for NHS workers or the elderly looks helpful; two-for-one deals on Easter eggs looks exploitative and sounds tone-deaf. It’s very much not business as usual right now. Creative messaging and tonality need to reflect this and this requires brands to be empathetic. But it’s a fine line between being empathetic and being seen to jump on the bandwagon and opportunistically trying to build revenue and sales at a time when so many routes to market are shutting down. Brands out to do good can be forgiven for doing good by stealth at these times.
Finally, data released in early April by advertising-attention experts Lumen Research showed that placing ads alongside news content about coronavirus drives much higher attention and interest than usual. Lumen found that a hard news context may, in fact, enhance consumers’ reception of brand messages. Print advertising is currently generating 21% more attention than it usually does and seeing ads in the context of hard news about the pandemic does not automatically make us transfer the bad news and emotions from the editorial content to the brands advertised.
To drive attention, advertisers need to select formats that are impactful and get noticed. In the current environment, ads alongside news content are performing better than ever.
Not only are ads commanding more attention and working harder than previously, they are also more affordable than in recent times. With larger, more engaged audiences, paradoxically the cost of media is falling. Because so many categories – from travel to automotive, gambling to live sport – are currently not advertising because they are unable to trade, the cost of media space is reducing.
For those still able to trade and able to advertise with the right tonality of messaging, the current media environment provides a real opportunity to grow share of voice and share of market. With a global recession around the corner, advertising alongside news content about coronavirus could be one of the best investment decisions a brand manager can make. For the good of their brand, for the good of consumers and for the good of the media that carry the message too.
Christian Polman is chief strategy officer at Ebiquity