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How Comcast, Verizon and Pepsi Ended Up Sponsoring Russian-backed COVID Misinformation Sites

A new report from NewsGuard Tech shows the continued danger to advertisers inherent in trusting their digital ad budgets to automated buying algorithms. It seems that thousands of major brands, including Comcast, Verizon, Pepsi, Starbucks, Walmart and (ironically) the Centers for Disease Control itself, ran ads on sites that spread misinformation about the coronavirus.

Alan Wolk

(Image credit: Alan Wolk)

To be clear, by “misinformation,” NewsGuard is not talking about minor or unintentional errors but rather, batshit crazy conspiracy theories like “Covid vaccines have tracking microchips,” and “The pandemic was planned by Bill Gates.”

More disturbing still, some of these sites are propaganda platforms funded by the Russian and Chinese governments, whose purpose seems to be to spread disinformation in the U.S., U.K., Canada and other English-speaking countries.

It’s yet another illustration of the problems brands face in buying digital advertising, where the content on websites is primarily informational in nature and much of that information may be misleading, offensive or otherwise not brand safe.

Compare that to television, where most programming is fictional on purpose--comedies, dramas, romances, murder mysteries and the like, and where avoiding the prospect of having your ads run on programming that spreads dangerous misinformation is as easy as specifying “no news programs.”

The NewsGuard report is even more troubling, however, in that it shows how easy it is for bad actors—sites that are specifically created to propagate misinformation—to wind up with advertising from respected national brands. This, of course, can serve to convince people of the validity of the misinformation on the site (e.g., “The CDC and Walmart wouldn’t be running ads on here if they thought what they were saying wasn’t true”).

There’s also the fact that digital ads on these sites are anything but subtle, following the reader around the page, popping up after every other paragraph. Even if the words on the page are brand safe, the advertising format often seems designed to harass the consumer rather than persuade them.

Then there’s the fact that once you make it to the end of the article, even on some of the largest and most respectable web sites (looking at you CNN), you’re confronted with rows of clickbait stories from clickbait sites, where links urging you to “Click to see what these child stars look like today!” have the unintentional impact of removing any credibility from the legitimate article you’ve just read. 

None of this is even mentioning the fact that they’re competing with your advertising for the reader’s attention, and for many people, clicking to learn the whereabouts of former child stars is going to seem far more compelling than clicking to learn more about new insurance products. (Just a hunch.)

While television can’t offer clicks, newer and more thorough attribution metrics (often referred to as “multitouch attribution” or “business outcomes”) can help track viewer’s journeys through the sales funnel, letting marketers know which ads and insertions were best at getting viewers to start researching a product and which were best at getting them to make a sale. The pandemic-fueled upsurge in e-commerce has made consumer behavior even easier to track.

The ability to better target specific audiences on digital is another reason frequently cited by marketers for shifting budgets online. But the rapid growth of ad-supported streaming has made that argument somewhat moot, as streaming TV is almost always bought on an audience basis, and so advertisers can use TV to target specific demographics and geographies, specifically the sort of younger, more tech savvy audiences who’ve installed ad blocking software on their web browsers and who are increasingly difficult to reach on linear TV as well.

And while a good portion of streaming inventory is placed via automated buying algorithms, the programming the algorithms insert them on is all brand safe, consisting of current or library network TV series and movies e.g., high-quality, high-production value entertainment. In time, these algorithms may, as my friend Zeev Neumeier, Vizio’s chief innovation officer, has suggested, be able to match specific advertisers with specific programming and even specific commercial breaks within that programming, so that the commercial feels less jarring and more an organic part of the show.

This, of course, is the real advantage to TV advertising, beyond all brand safety issues: by using sight, sound and motion, TV commercials can become mini-movies, telling a story that impacts the consumer emotionally rather than just intellectually. When that mini-movie is surrounded by programming that is of a similar or complementary tone, that emotional impact can be even greater. 

Or, as anyone selling TV these days is likely to tell you, there’s a reason why people remember TV commercials they saw 20 years ago but are hard-pressed to recall display ads they saw 20 minutes ago.