Advertisers Now Have a New Keyword Concern: ‘Protest’

As demonstrations dominate headlines, brand safety doesn't mean hiding out, GroupM urges

protesters marching toward the white house
The practice of keyword blocking has been reinvigorated surrounding protest coverage. Getty Images

Just as the wave of Covid-19 keyword blocking began to ease, advertisers turned their brand safety concerns to another news story: coverage of protests over the death of George Floyd.

But indiscriminately blocking additional keywords, such as those surrounding civic unrest, may prove to be an overcorrection, according to a recent GroupM report.

The findings come after months of Covid-fueled advertiser wariness. In response to a perceived brand safety threat, many cut ad spending as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold in the U.S. in mid-March.

Those that maintained their spends often outright blocked keywords such as “coronavirus.”

“There was so much negative content about [Covid-19] that brands didn’t know what to advertise against. So the knee-jerk reaction was just to stop advertising completely,” Mario Diez, CEO of digital ad optimization platform Peer39, told Adweek.

However, as the ad market began to level out, explicit keyword blocking of “coronavirus” or “Covid-19” started to fall. Most GroupM partners are either not blocking virus-related stories or using context-dependent blocking methods, according to John Montgomery, global evp of brand safety at GroupM. While the company did not divulge which brands were using these tactics, GroupM’s partners include Google, L’Oreal, Uber and Unilever.

Is history repeating?

History is now repeating, as the recent wave of protests has prompted some advertisers to block keywords like “demonstration,” “rioting” or “Black Lives Matter.”

“What we learned from Covid was that brands had to figure out what to say, and they needed time to do that. They didn’t want to seem insensitive,” Diez added. “The same thing’s happening with the protests. Knee-jerk reaction.”

He advised brands to stop, “re-center” and ask themselves, “What’s my message? What’s my content?”

A reflexive advertising pullback comes with opportunity costs. Consumers spend more time and engage with content on hard news over soft news, according to the GroupM report. Consumers also, typically, don’t think negatively of brands for news adjacency, according to a recent Integral Ad Science report.

As Montgomery put it: “There is no real evidence that being adjacent to hard news, or bad news, is detrimental to your brand.”

Brands that retreat now, scared off by the news cycle, could also see a longer-term hit to sales, as Nielsen recently found that 47% of marketing efforts are not realized for a full year.

Media businesses have been especially vocal about the harms of keyword blocking, and have noted brands’ hesitancy over terms like “Black.”

"Brands are unable to speak about the methodology they use to create blocklists."
Ryan Simone, director of global audience solutions, Vice Media

Ryan Simone, director of global audience solutions at Vice Media, criticized the effectiveness of keyword blocking. “Blocklists are treated as a blanket solution for all of a brand’s digital campaigns. At what cost [do we employ them]? Diminished reach, weakened performance, the degradation of media and the rise of clickbait headlines?”

Brands may not even fully understand why they’re blocking certain words, Simone said. “Despite all the effort that is put into audience targeting, it surprises me when brands are unable to speak about the methodology they use to create and maintain the blocklists, other than adding buzzwords to avoid ‘risky’ current events.”

While brands face the risk of placing advertisements around objectionable content, publishers have the opposite concern: inadvertently putting uncomfortable ads around their content, such as ads for N95 respirators at a time when healthcare professionals did not have enough masks, which caused The New York Times to cancel programmatic ads on its coronavirus newsletter.

Alex Payne, vp of global ad operations at Vice Media, said that while he was generally not concerned about offensive programmatic advertisements, they “have been a challenge recently with an influx of mask ads post Covid-19 and T-shirts bearing the phrase ‘I Can’t Breathe’ post-George Floyd’s death. Both of which can be categorized as ‘fashion’ and therefore extremely difficult to control.”

With brand safety, “there is no such thing as no risk, particularly with user-generated content,” noted Montgomery. GroupM encourages a more proactive approach, where brand safety is a necessary—but not sole—component of a successful strategy.

“We think brand safety 2.0 is a new conversation where we’re now saying: ‘Brand safety is table stakes. Let’s talk about what works best for consumers now that it’s safe.’”


Ethan Wu is an intern on Adweek’s media team. He is also a rising senior studying economics at Cornell University.
Rachel Winicov is an intern with Adweek for the summer of 2020 focusing on digital media, ad tech and social media. She is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies classics. Rachel is from Philadelphia, Pa.
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