Marketers Must Protect Their Reputations in the Age of Fake News

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On the internet, companies have the luxury of leveraging a variety of technologies and services to place paid ads in the environments where they are likely to grab the most attention. By and large, this form of automation has been beneficial, having saved many firms time and money while allowing them to target potential buyers at scale. But in light of controversies surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, businesses have been forced to become more cognizant of the context in which their content appears online.

“The biggest challenge marketers face is that their ads will appear within content that is contrary to the sentiment of a significant portion of their customers,” Susan Bidel, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, says. “If their customers don’t like where they see their ads, that could make customers use the single greatest power that they have—the power of their wallets—to object.”

A big source of concern is the so-called “fake news” sites. In a January report, Forrester placed a spotlight on digital properties whose primary goal is to generate revenue by deceptive means, often through fabricated headlines and stories designed to drive traffic. One purveyor is Disinfomedia, whose CEO Justin Coler told NPR that he employs between 20 and 25 writers at a time, and that the fraudulent efforts have generated as much as $30,000 in a single month. Additionally, the Forrester report stated that “citizens of one Macedonian town launched at least 140 websites featuring sensationalist and often false content to generate shares on Facebook and cash in.”

But another, perhaps trickier, source of distress for marketers has been advocacy sites whose content can be interpreted as offensive. This was the problem when, earlier this year, AllState, Kellogg’s, and Warby Parker pulled ads from conservative news and opinion site Breitbart.com, which they decided was not an appropriate destination for them, though technically a legitimate publisher. And Breitbart.com, Bidel points out, is just one of many such sites on all sides of the political spectrum.

In this shaky climate, marketers are feeling pressure to exercise good judgment and control where their messages show up. This goes for sites whose content, though satirical, might be misunderstood, including The Onion or The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report.

During the International Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) annual leadership meeting in late January, Randall Rothenberg, the organization’s CEO, went so far as to urge companies to “banish fakery.”

“Any company sitting in this room has the ability to police itself and to actively banish fakery, fraudulence, criminality, and hatred from its midst, and it is your obligation to do so,” he said.

Companies have been reacting. In late March, a number of them voiced outrage when Google allowed ads to appear on user-generated videos containing hate speech.

In Europe, many advertisers went so far as to boycott the platform altogether. And, according to The New York Times, AT&T and Johnson & Johnson—two of the biggest advertisers in the United States—pulled their ads from YouTube and other Google properties.

According to Bidel, companies have used whitelists or blacklists to help regulate which sites to use for their advertising, but they’re not easy to manage and can be severely limited.

One solution for marketers is to make a blanket statement and say they don’t want to have anything to do with politics. Automaker Nissan did just this, stating that it prioritized reaching the right audiences in as many contexts “as possible.”

Others, like Kellogg’s and Warby Parker, might decide to let their brand values guide their media strategies.

It’s a very difficult environment. Whatever they choose, “it’s their money and their responsibility to spend that money wisely in positive, brand-building ways,” Bidel says. “To that end, they must know how all these processes work. They cannot just throw up their hands and say to agencies, ‘You do it.’ They must have people on their teams who understand what the agencies are up to, the obstacles the agencies face, and the reasonable goals that they should set for their agencies, so they don’t wrongly incentivize and force agencies into behaviors that no one wants.” 

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