Tackling LGBT+ blocklists: publishers and agencies rally against digital censorship

The Drum 05 Mar 2020 01:18

With one in four advertising dollars now going to the Facebook-Google duopoly, it’s proving increasingly hard for publishers to keep their head above water. For LGBT+ titles, though, another challenge is emerging in the form of overzealous blocklists.

Titles like Attitude and PinkNews face having as much as 73% of their stories flagged as ‘brand unsafe’ with terms like ‘lesbian’ ‘bisexual’ and ‘drag queens’ making it onto advertisers’ keyword exclusion ‘naughty’ lists, according to recent research from real-time brand safety business Cheq.

In their quest for protection from ad misplacement, advertisers around the globe are doubling down on automated tech to tackle the issue. Well-intended as this is, there’s no question it’s creating problems for clients and publishers alike.

‘Sex’, ‘violence‘, ‘death‘, ‘alcohol‘, ‘slavery‘, ‘kill‘, ‘injury‘, ‘shoot‘, ‘disaster‘ and ‘bastards‘ – are just some of the keywords brands are choosing not to advertise against in 2020. Though such blockage is shielding brands from potential association with illegal or nasty content, it’s also creating a deficit of support for hard-hitting journalism.

New media networks like Brand Advance, billed as the first dedicated global diversity media network, have emerged, offering brands an opportunity to connect with more diverse audiences. Elsewhere, traditional media agencies like Mindshare have unveiled their own LGBT+ anti-blacklist marketplace, which aggregates publishers into one negotiated inclusion list so that brands support LGBT-specific publications.

Impact of the rapid blocklist proliferation

Covering 15 major media sites, including PinkNews, Gay Star News and Advocate, Cheq ran an industry-standard blacklist of 2000 words, and ran it against 225 neutral or positive online articles on a single news day.

She says that as well as treating all content the same, the context of words and phrases used had been lost in the blunt approach to blocklists, and the knock-on effect is those “niche sites, serving important communities and audiences are starved of much needed advertising revenue. And brands are missing out on reaching them.”

“On the web, we lose about 50% of ad sales,” admits Benjamin Cohen, who has served as chief executive and editor of the PinkNews for 15 years.

“Basically, from an ad blocking perspective, lesbian equals porn. It’s very crude,” Cohen details. “If [we] wrote a story about lesbian sexual health, [it would] definitely be blocked.”

Cohen puts the responsibility on the shoulders of ad networks who control the blocklists, not the tech and social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat which have already invested in preventing the problem.

Since July 2018, PinkNews has been on Snapchat which it sees as a “primary focus” as a great deal of its readership is Gen Z. On the fact that Snapchat is unaffected by blocklists, Cohen explains that the platform only works with curated lists of a very small number of publisher partners, and has very strict content guidelines that we need to apply, so it can be sure that all the content is brand safe.

Despite the hit that PinkNews takes from LGBT+ blocklists, “In the long run, we don’t see programmatic ads as the way we’re going to make money,” Cohen admits. ”We expect to make more money from advertising our own products and services, you can already buy our T shirts and pin badges.

Steps in the right direction

“I’d be lying if I said, in the UK, it was completely 100% done,” admits Mindshare UK’s chief exec, Jem Lloyd Williams. “We’re in the finishing stages of negotiating the different technical disruptions you’d expect from a normal private marketplace. We’ve been taking advice from our own LGBT+ community.”

Calling it a first of its kind series of ‘inclusion PMPs’ Mindshare is hoping to fully roll it out by 2021, to drive more media dollars to minority and marginalised groups

Whether the media agency will share its knowledge with other agencies, or encourage them to follow suit, Lloyd William said “It’s from Mindshare, but it’s for everybody. It isn’t something we can patent, it’s the right thing to do for our clients. I would be super happy if other agencies would do it too.”

He detailed how the team at Brand Advance took 500 publications and platforms that pull in a billion people each month and put them on another ad server, walled the garden to ensure everything with it was brand safe, to combat the problem.

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