“Brand safety” became the global ad industry’s hottest buzzword in March as a string of major advertisers such as AT&T, Verizon, The Guardian and J&J announced plans to pull all video and text ads from YouTube amid disputes over messaging running alongside videos supporting ISIS and other extremist groups.
In a parallel case of brands scrambling to avoid any potentially controversial content, hundreds of companies have recently stated that they will stop placing ads on Breitbart News Network thanks, in part, to an effort by ad industry veterans working to curb its influence in the months since the election. These rogue marketers may operate anonymously, but big brands and their media agency partners are listening.
The property, founded by former Drudge Report editor Andrew Breitbart 12 years ago, has become all but unavoidable for political observers and advertisers alike, thanks to its steadfast support of Donald Trump’s successful run for president and former Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon’s status as his senior advisor.
“We hadn’t really heard of Breitbart, so when we went on to see what it was all about, we were pretty shocked,” said a spokesperson for Sleeping Giants, citing such recent headlines as “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews” and “Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber: It’s Time To Get Back In The Closet.” The SG group, which consists of a Facebook community page and a series of regional Twitter accounts, started last November in an attempt to counter what its founder called “outright sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia … masquerading as real news” by using social media mentions to discourage individual companies from buying ads on Breitbart.
SG’s inaugural tweet to SoFi in November questioned the loan business’ ties, asking if it was aware it was advertising on Breitbart. “[The CEO] had no idea he was even on the site,” said the spokesperson, “and that’s when we knew this was going to be much bigger than a one-week project.”
Two weeks later, Kellogg’s became the largest party to publicly confirm plans to pull all ads from Breitbart. Sleeping Giants’ own public list, which requires “some sort of communication directly from a company itself,” claims that nearly 1,600 brands have since followed suit.
According to the spokesperson, the project has grown from one man with a day job “in marketing” to “a legitimate team” with 100,000 social media followers. The group’s rise mirrors the global conversation about brand safety in a volatile political environment.
“This phenomenon is only going to increase, because the big thing happening in media is audience-driven planning and buying,” said UM global CEO Daryl Lee, explaining that many ad platforms built to track consumers online are “agnostic about whether they appear on a good site or a neo-Nazi site.” He referenced a recent scandal over a Jaguar ad that ran before a pro-ISIS YouTube video in the U.K., leading to boycotts and a promise from Google chief business officer Philipp Schindler to develop “expanded safeguards for advertisers.”
“Programmatic companies have thought nothing of spraying their clients’ ads around the internet,” SG’s spokesperson wrote, echoing Lee’s comments. “They are ultimately the ones that are responsible for making these sites profitable.” Before the project even took off, three of the largest digital ad platforms— AppNexus, TubeMogul and Rocket Fuel—effectively banned Breitbart.
A PR firm representing Breitbart has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
UM’s Lee was not familiar with Sleeping Giants, but one C-level leader at a major U.S. media agency credited the group with facilitating client discussions about moving from a “blacklist” strategy that cuts out certain “questionable” properties to “whitelisting,” or buying only from a list of approved media partners.
“It would be presumptuous of us as an agency to impose a blanket threshold on our clients,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Beyond non-negotiables like pornography, hate speech or terrorism, every client has the right to set their own threshold.”
Many brands would rather “opt-in” than “opt-out.”
Sleeping Giants’ spokesperson described client-side responses to the project as “varied,” stating that some big advertisers like Amazon have stayed silent while only Nissan has directly defended its strategy by writing, “We’d like to advertise to everyone.”
A seasoned media veteran compared the project to ‘80s-era efforts by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority to dissuade brands from buying time on such “controversial” programs as Married with Children via group faxes and phone calls. This individual questioned Sleeping Giants’ ability to affect the financial viability of Breitbart, calling the site “a vanity project from right wing hedge fund owner” Robert Mercer.
Sleeping Giants said its ultimate goal is not to put any specific property out of business but to “make bigotry less profitable,” acknowledging that “we have a long road ahead of us.”
Breitbart has yet to acknowledge Sleeping Giants. But on some level, Bannon’s former employer is aware of this effort. Its editor in chief called for readers to boycott Kellogg’s last year, and a December post indirectly claimed credit for “massive layoffs” at the CPG company.
The agency executive attributes SG’s growth to the “public shaming element” of social media, adding, “very little is more compelling than a screenshot of your ad next to offensive content. It’s challenging not to act.”