Vice Media Urges Marketers to Reassess ‘Antiquated’ Blocklists  

For a second year, Vice uses NewFronts to call for industry change

marsha cooke
Marsha Cooke, svp of content strategy and community at Vice Media, said advertisers have not changed their ways after a similar call to action in 2019. Vice Media
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

Key insights:

In the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, marketers and agencies that work with Vice Media have added terms like “Black Lives Matter,” “protest,” “Minneapolis” and even “Black people” to blocklists. As a result, the publisher’s news coverage related to those ongoing nationwide protests was monetized at a rate 57% lower than other news coverage.

Vice, for the second year in a row, is calling on the industry to stop the practice. At its virtual NewFronts presentation to the advertising industry today, the embattled publisher called on brand marketers to review the words comprising their blocklists and is asking the agency world to use contextual-based solutions instead.

“You know it’s the right time to be advocates, to put aside reticence and fear,” Marsha Cooke, svp of content strategy and community at Vice Media, said in a video message. “Let us help you walk the walk.”

The message comes a year after Vice Media implored the industry to stop using the practice and stopped allowing terms like “gay,” “transgender,” “Jewish,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” “immigrant” or “interracial” on blocklists. While the sentiment was well received at the time, advertisers didn’t shift their strategies around the use of blocklists, Cook said today.

“We got your applause, but we didn’t see change,” Cooke said. “The list just got longer.”

Marketers also moved to block Covid-19-related stories from their buys, and the publisher saw negative effects on their revenue. Topics around Covid-19 were 137% more likely to end up on blocklists, Cooke said; industry-wide, the term “coronavirus” was the second-most-blocked keyword in February, according to Integral Ad Science.

While blocking of coronavirus-related terms has lessened slightly, advertisers’ brand-safety practices have shifted to focus on protest content. Other industry voices, including GroupM, have urged advertisers to reconsider and voiced concerns about the cost of those blocklists.

“Please understand that the difference between action and inaction is our democracy,” Cooke told marketers today. “This is an opportunity to support our fearless colleagues across the industry that are working hard by reporting every day on the stories that matter.”

The call to action is one of many pushes that Vice Media is making in its annual pitch to the marketing industry, and it comes as the publisher faces business headwinds due to the ongoing economic fallout from Covid-19. Vice Media laid off 155 staffers in May, 55 of them U.S.-based, which Vice Media CEO Nancy DuBuc said at the time was due to the economic headwinds from the ongoing pandemic. Other publishers, including The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Financial Times, have also seen a decrease in digital ad spend.

Vice Media is hoping to attract some ad spend back with new editorial products. One of the biggest is an international expansion of the publisher’s news brand, Vice News, with Vice World News, an international newsroom that will bring hundreds more hours of international programming from journalists across the world. Vice World News is available on English-language sites today, and the publisher will build out new products in the coming year, Vice Media said.

Elsewhere in the broadcast realm, the publisher has already greenlit four new series for Vice TV this spring, and is also working on a weekly talk show co-hosted by former ESPN journalists Jemele Hill and Cari Champion. That series, with the working title Disruptors with Jemele Hill and Cari Champion, is slated to premiere this summer.

Also in the works is The 8:46 Project, which is aimed at expanding coverage and reporting on systemic racism across all of Vice’s brands, including Vice News, Vice Digital and Vice TV. (The title references the death of George Floyd, the Black man killed by police in Minneapolis this year while saying “I can’t breathe.”)

Vice Media has also struck a partnership with podcast publisher iHeartRadio to debut Vice News Reports, a weekly investigative podcast series that will debut this fall. Additionally, iHeartMedia will have a first-look option to co-produce additional podcasts build off Vice Media Group content.

One of Vice’s newest properties, Refinery 29, is not a focus of today’s presentation to marketers. That publication has been the center of controversy for the publisher after a group of former employees came forward with allegations of workplace discrimination. Earlier this month, Refinery29 editor Christene Barberich stepped down in response to the outcry; Vice Media has begun an internal investigation into the allegations.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.