‘Back us not block us’: Media owners and IAB urge advertisers to stop blocking ads next to COVID-19 news

Brands and agencies are mistakenly updating their programmatic and other media buying to prevent advertising next to news stories covering the COVID-19 crisis, according to industry association IAB Australia.

Both the IAB and media owners have responded with an urgent call for advertisers to “stop blocking the news”, and prioritise supporting news outlets over “generic brand safety rules”.

Coronavirus coverage has dominated every news outlet in the country

The Guardian’s director of commercialisation and delivery, Tereza Alexandratos, said “advertisers must be brave enough to have their messaging appear next to the stories that Australians are reading”, while CEO of Nine’s Pedestrian Group and the chair of IAB Australia’s board, Matt Rowley, claimed blocking ads from appearing next to critical news coverage will harm brands in the long run.

“Applying generic brand safety rules without fully considering whether the news organisation is legitimate and critical will cause brands more harm than good,” Rowley said.

“We encourage all advertisers to take advantage of their ability to control with precision where their ads appear and to embrace the opportunity to support the ongoing production of news and journalism in these uncertain times.”

IAB Australia added that topics like ‘crisis’, ‘COVID-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ are racing to the top of advertiser block-lists, stripping news companies of desperately needed revenue and missing a chance to connect with a growing audience. In March (to date, at the time of IAB’s statement), Nielsen’s digital content ratings showed time on digital news sites and apps was up 29% compared to February.

“Credible news and media organisations are seeing huge jumps in online traffic, but many brands are blocking advertising from appearing near content mentioning coronavirus,” said CEO of IAB Australia, Gai Le Roy.

“It’s essential that brands support news and journalism because with this content now so ubiquitous, without advertising support it will be simply unworkable and unsustainable for the production of news content.

“Brands and agencies have the ability to decide for themselves the news organisations they deem legitimate and critical to the Australian public and economy. For those brands able to advertise at the moment, having advertising messages in these trusted environments with engaged audiences is an important investment.”

Already, most media companies have had to resort to significant cost-cutting measures to cope with declining advertising revenues in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Southern Cross Austereo, News Corp, Buzzfeed Australia, and Seven have introduced pay cuts. And Seven and News Corp have said redundancies are “inevitable”, and have moved to four-day weeks and nine-day fortnights, respectively, for some staff.

Both News Corp and Nine have suspended production of a number of print products, including News Corp’s 60 community print titles, while multiple regional newspapers have shuttered.

News Corp’s managing director of digital solutions, Neil Robinson, said the company is asking brands to “back us not block us”.

“It’s important that brands understand that there can be no stigma attached to such far-reaching essential news,” Robinson said.

“Appropriate, relevant and empathetic advertising on reputable and premium news sites around coronavirus content can be extremely powerful. In fact, such messages can be vital communication tools for brands when consumers need more information, not less, to cope through crisis.”

IAB Australia encouraged advertisers to ensure they don’t inadvertently block premium news sites, and review their practices. While specific words that are “100% unsafe” should always be blocked, the IAB said, advertisers should use semantic contextual targeting to fully understand the editorial context, and any associated risk, instead of relying on lists of blocked keywords.

The body for advertisers responded to the IAB, with AANA CEO John Broome saying advertisers “understand and appreciate fully the value of trusted news sources in our society, particularly during this emergency”.

“Australian advertisers will continue to make decisions on where their advertising appears based on what the community would deem appropriate and what is commercially sensible,” the AANA said in a statement.

“If programmatic or other practices are leading to undesirable outcomes, advertisers and the Media Federation of Australia and others will need to work together to mitigate against any unintended outcomes. 

“The AANA has not seen data that would allow an analysis of media spend by category since the COVID-19 emergency hit us. However, it is evident that both consumer and business to business behaviour has altered radically in the past few weeks.

“Discretionary spend in many categories has evaporated because of the combination of the necessary health and safety measures now in place and because most individuals and organisations are seeking to preserve cash in the short term. Brand owners have responded to this new reality.”

The Media Federation of Australia (MFA), for its part, emphasised that COVID-19 reporting is “not what we would consider unsavoury content” and supporting journalism is more important than ever.

“The MFA and our members have a long-standing commitment to brand safety, ensuring we use technology and vigilance to mitigate the risk of brands being associated with unsavoury content,” said CEO Sophie Madden.

“Reliable and high-quality reporting of the coronavirus is not what we would consider unsavoury content. Consumers are seeking trustworthy journalism to stay informed on how the pandemic is impacting them. Supporting quality journalism is always important, and now more than ever if we are to overcome the crisis we are facing.”

Verizon Media’s managing director Paul Sigaloff said he understands the risks advertisers are trying to avoid, but there is “a clear distinction between blocking your advertising from somewhat risky or unsuitable content, and blocking it from what has become a cultural phenomenon”.

“For most brands, to block yourself from appearing against COVID-19, is to effectively block yourself from the consumer’s view,” he said.

BBC Global News’ Alistair McEwan agreed, adding that the “lazy decisions” to block advertising hurt both publishers and brands.

Peter Holder, managing director of Daily Mail Australia, added: “Now is not the time for incessant chat about brand safety, but it is a great opportunity for many brands to connect with very seriously engaged sets of eyeballs.”


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