The News Isn’t Unsafe, and Brands Need to Recognize This Through Their Advertising

Programmatic can help by refining its approach to ad creation

An illustration of a person talking with scribbles in their head.
When there's journalistic integrity, it will always be brand safe.
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Is the truth brand safe? Many brands behave as though it isn’t. Afraid that consumers won’t be able to distinguish between their message and a well-reported news story, they shun publishers of hard news in favor of content more easily controlled: softer stories (or simply audiences) divorced from any consideration of what the audiences are reading.

All too many brands fear a too close connection with reality. That’s a mistake. Brands can foster meaningful connections with valuable audiences by investing in quality journalism. The news, if reported with integrity, is always brand safe.

There’s nothing new about brands avoiding the news. Urban and regional newspapers once thrived not because brands longed to display themselves next to unexpected news, but because those papers were the best way to reach prospective buyers. Tiffany & Co. may or may not care about journalism, but it wants to reach Manhattanites who can afford its jewels, so it buys a prominent spot in The New York Times. And the high ratings of 60 Minutes notwithstanding, the evening news has long been a loss leader for network television. News attracted advertisers in spite of its content, not because of it.

This prejudice has translated to digital. Online, the evaluation of news as brand-unsafe occurs in the metrics of the programmatic marketplace, which tends to segment hard news as undesirable in advance, without anyone at the brand even knowing, let alone agreeing.

Brands can foster meaningful connections with valuable audiences by investing in quality journalism.

Yet it would be wrong to say that brands have always avoided hard news or that brands avoid such news because they don’t like to be near negative content. Because the programmatic marketplace that deemphasizes real news simultaneously rewards fake news and general outrage on social networks. A phony Nancy Pelosi video continues to earn ad money for the largest such network even as real news languishes. Hard news is being monetized on those networks, just not on the much safer sites where that hard news originates.

So why do more brands not pay more to advertise on sites that do actual journalism than on sites that foment fake news?

We don’t ask social networks to adhere to journalistic standards. Nor should we—that’s not what they’re for. Yet the result of their “let the members decide what’s shareworthy” philosophy is an environment that most sane brand managers would see as far less safe than a news site that believes in and follows journalistic ethics.

Many news organizations either monitor comments or turn them off in order to preserve a civil atmosphere. Social networks, on the contrary, encourage passionate commenting because it’s sticky—as is well known to anyone who’s ever continued an online argument rather than going to bed.

User-generated content can’t be regulated in real time. Real journalistic content can and is, though. Genuine news organizations publish the truth as they understand it and correct themselves when factual errors come to their attention.

Most of the places that news content appears—other than actual news properties—are less safe because they are less monitored, and there’s no mechanism for correction. So brands end up next to outdated stories and outright lies. But they stay, because of scale.

A number of brands in recent years have realized the value of taking a stand in favor of gay rights, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests and other hot-button issues.

I hereby invite brands to take a different kind of stand, one that matters a great deal to their most valuable, educated, affluent customers.

I invite brands to stand up for good journalism and to let their customers and prospective customers—and the ad-tech algorithms that might otherwise have kept them away from good journalism—know that they’re doing it. To stand up for the journalists who risk their lives every day to bring us news that may upset us, but that we need if we’re to understand our world.

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