Today’s brand-safety toolkits are keeping valuable ad dollars from reaching gay-centric news sites.
According to a new report from the ad-verification firm Cheq, nearly three-quarters of the articles across LGBT-friendly news sites, like The Advocate and the U.K.-based PinkNews, are flagged as brand-unsafe and potentially pornographic. Out of the 225 articles inspected over the course of the study, 164 of them—on legitimate LGBT news stories across the web—were being flagged by media buyers’ blacklists. Marked as unsafe for advertisers, these publishers are denied ad dollars that they need to survive—with sometimes disastrous results.
“We don’t produce particularly contentious topics, and we take the same impartial editorial approach as the BBC,” said Benjamin Cohen, CEO of PinkNews. “But the truth is, no matter what, the very nature of gay culture is going to be contentious to some people.”
For the most part though, these sites aren’t being denied ad dollars because of moral or religious differences—it’s because of the words that they’re using.
The Cheq study referenced an industry-standard blacklist of 2,000 words commonly used to prevent brands from appearing inline next to heinous content, when they’re buying content programmatically—which has caused brand-safety snafus before. Cheq found that alongside words like “injury” and “death”—ostensibly meant to keep these brands from appearing next to gory or violent videos—these same lists also prevented brands from appearing next to stories mentioning “lesbians,” “bisexuals” and “drag queens,” among others.
To Cohen, publishing stories about lesbian interests, in particular, is akin to a death sentence.
“From an ad agency perspective, an article on lesbian sexual health is an article about porn,” he explained. “But stories about lesbian actresses or politicians, we’re finding those blocked from a lot of ad agencies as well.”
He gave the example of a recent article on the site about the ex-Stonewall chief executive, Ruth Hunt, being hired to the House of Lords in the U.K. The article, which mentions the word “lesbian” six times would be a code red on these brand-safety lists—despite literally being a story about a political hire.
On one hand, it’s hard to fault agencies from taking these ham-fisted approaches to brand safety, considering the high stakes that result from appearing next to gross content. On the other, these same buyers have seen time and time again that keyword blacklists are far too blunt a tool to be properly effective.
Despite that, these blacklists have been the dominant tool in the brand-safety world “ever since the dawn of ad verification,” according to Cheq CSO Daniel Avital, who noted that he’s noticed an uptick in adoption over the past three years.
“I think what happened was this became a very big deal for advertisers, and people like Marc Pritchard and Keith Weed were rightfully very vocal about having to put an end to this problem—and swiftly,” he explained. “So there was a lot of pressure on all the supply chain to get this solved, and keywords were the lowest-hanging fruit.”
Though these blacklists might keep buyers out of harm’s way, they hardly do the same for those selling the inventory—especially if that inventory is gay friendly.
At the start of this year, the Grindr-owned LGBT pub Into shuttered its doors a mere 17 months after it first went live. This week, the LGBT media company Gay Star News was bought off for £1 after shuttering with £33,000 in debt this past July.
In a recent story from Buzzfeed News about the state of gay publishers, many of them admitted to looking for revenue streams outside of advertisers’ wallets.