Brands blocking ads on Black Lives Matter-related keywords draws criticism

Dive Brief:

  • Vice Media Group is calling on brands and agencies to make a change in their brand safety practices and to step up and support stories that cover current events, according to a press release the company shared with Marketing Dive.
  • The call comes as the media company saw new keywords added to block lists including “George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Protest,” “Minneapolis” and even “Black people,” preventing ads from running alongside related content. The company said that content related to George Floyd and protests saw 57% lower monetization rates than other news content.
  • Vice is asking brand marketers to ask their agencies to review and question keywords on their block lists. The media group is calling on agencies to reassess how they create keyword block lists, and look at contextual-based solutions that support journalism.

Dive Insight:

Vice Media Group is doubling down on its call to advertisers and agencies to not be afraid to have their ads run next to controversial subject matter, as stories about racial injustice dominate the news cycle.

The move follows a similar move last year when Vice called on advertisers to rethink their brand safety practices after discovering that keyword block lists often block content that promotes diversity and inclusion from being advertised against. At that time, the company identified a list of 25 words and phrases found on keyword block lists including “Muslim,” “Transgender,” “Refugee” and “Interracial.” Now, brands are trying to avoid any words associated with the global movement for racial equality and justice.

At the company’s virtual Digital Content NewFronts, Marsha Cooke, SVP of impact at Vice Media Group, referred to this issue as “the brand-safety paradox.” The strategy of blocking keywords, she said, needs to be rethought as advertisers looking to avoid controversy also remove themselves from the national conversation.

Publishers have already been decimated by the pandemic. Even as site traffic has increased this year, this did not translate into a revenue boost because many advertisers deploy keyword block lists for “coronavirus” and “pandemic.” Now, this same issue seems to be happening in the context of the current protest movement, with even more extreme measures being taken, like blocking the phrase “Black people.”

Ironically, while many brands are taking a stand and creating Black Live Matters themed advertisements, many advertisers are avoiding the subject matter in a media context. This adds to the areas where brands must use caution, as to not run afoul of consumers who want brands to be consistent when working for change, as Starbucks’ stumble on Black Lives Matter recently demonstrated.

The Vice Media rallying cry comes as the perception of brand safety is broadly being reevaluated. WPP’s media agency group GroupM recently introduced a playbook to help marketers manage brand safety best practices as a number of developments in 2020 across the political, social and technological realms are leading to new opportunities and risks.

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