What to do with your news advertising when the news is bad

—When marketers support high-quality journalism with rigorous standards and integrity, it’s good for their brands, media and society itself. Kevin Keane explains how it can be done.—

Two clients reached out to me this week to talk about advertising challenges arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

One was a global brand pausing their ads in news “given the Ukraine crisis.” The other was a national media publisher with a high-quality news property, dealing with advertisers pulling their news dollars.

The former wanted to protect their brand and manage the risks of advertising around news content; the latter wanted to protect their bottom line and understand the risks to brands of advertising around news content.

I can appreciate both positions.

On the brand side, the reputation risk comes from 1) the brand appearing adjacent to or within intense news coverage, thus suffering some perceived negative association, and 2) the brand inadvertently funding mis- and disinformation by being programmatically placed in or around dangerous and harmful material.

The response from brand leaders is often to blocklist keywords and impose blanket bans on advertising in news environments. This is the safest, surest way to guarantee no negative impact on the brand.

But it’s also a missed opportunity, with potentially grave and unintended consequences.

People remain very interested in the news, especially in times of uncertainty. They seek information and updates, and even when that news is hard to watch, they watch it anyway.

News publishers know this, but even quality organizations get hurt by blocklists and blanket bans. This reduces their ad revenue, and damages their ability to produce high-quality news.

The unintended consequence is that—as a share of total news—quality journalism declines, and “alternative news sources” that aren’t as rigorous in their journalistic integrity gain more share. These alt news actors—from the benign co-worker you follow on social media, to the bots controlled by more malignant organizations—play fast and loose with facts, which in turn can erode trust and social cohesion.

With all the talk these days of brands doing good for the world, there’s an easy way for them to make important contributions with their existing activity: Channel media investment to high-quality journalism.

It benefits brands, publishers, and the general population. Here’s how it can be done:

For advertisers and agencies:

  • Invest in quality, not quantity.
  • Run product and information-focused assets, not emotional brand plays.
  • Shift from fast to slow—insist that ads are placed by humans, not programmatically.

For media companies:

  • Suspend specific ad placements.
  • Tell the news consumer about the importance of ad-supported news.

Invest in quality, not quantity: Quality journalism and media deserves advertiser support at all times. It’s fundamental to a thriving, healthy society. Our information diet matters, and advertisers have a role to play in starving low-quality “news” and investing in high-quality news.

Brainsights’ research with Oath from 2018 shows the benefit: Advertisers that invest in high-quality versus low-quality news benefit significantly, with high-quality defined as trustworthy, uncluttered and current. The ads running with or near high-quality news are simply more effective: Capturing 35% more attention, 36% more emotional connection, and 18% more encoding to memory when compared to news advertising benchmarks.

This means that of all ads measured in news environments, those that capture the most consumer neural activity—the activation of the unconscious, decision-making minds of consumers—are those placed in high-quality news environment.

Use product and information-focused ads: But to get the most benefit from quality news environments, advertisers must strike the right tone. This involves placing information-focused ads.

Direct response advertisers have long known this, but it isn’t just for infomercials. Anything with a product bent will perform well. This is about capitalizing on the information-seeking mindsets of news consumers.

In separate research with Global News, Brainsights found that information-focused advertising with strong CTAs can garner up to 25% more attention, 28% more emotional connection, and up to 70% more memory encoding in news environments versus ad benchmarks, while equity spots with heavy emotional tones often underperform.

Shift from fast to slow: When covering war, systemic violence, global pandemics and other news relating to death and suffering, run creative in news using good old-fashioned humans instead of AI.

This is likely to be the most unpopular of the recommendations, as the media industry rushes toward automated planning and buying. The trouble is that despite this progress—and it’s been huge—there are doubts it can ever be 100% foolproof, especially when it comes to news advertising.

The side-by-side ad from Applebee’s that ran during CNN’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just the latest high profile slip-up. You can’t watch the CNN segment and fail to understand a brand’s rationale for pulling their advertising. And it only takes one mistake like this to catalyze an exodus of advertisers already anxious about their brand in the news environment.

This misstep would have been much less likely with humans placing the ads.

Suspend specific ad placements: Media companies, read the room. CNN made the right decision to suspend the so-called “squeeze back” ad placements “from coverage on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” These ad placements, superimposed on the harder news content, are simply too close to horrible real-world events being presented to the viewer, and can damage not only the brands that appear there, but the news property that delivers it.

Tell the news consumer about the importance of commercial investment in the news: Even after these steps, there remain risks in placing ads in news environments.

Priming audiences with hard-hitting and sometimes disturbing news may still negatively impact their perception of brands, depending on that brand’s proximity.

But why couldn’t that perception be changed?

The New York Times has grown its subscriber base significantly in the last six years, topping 10 million digital subscribers last month. The groundwork for this tremendous growth was its award-winning brand campaign The Truth is Worth It, which educated consumers on the importance of quality news journalism (read more about it here).

Why couldn’t ad-supported news organizations do something similar? The precedent is there, as anyone who listens to the BBC Global News Podcast would well know after hearing this message: “The BBC Global News Podcast is supported by advertising.” If consumers were reminded that news coverage is possible in part through the support of advertisers, it’s entirely possible that this re-framing would doubly benefit news advertising brands.

News plays a vital role in healthy societies, and brands play a critical role in supporting a vibrant news ecosystem. These actions could represent a start in ensuring that even in these uncertain times, we can be certain of news that works for everyone.

Kevin Keane is the CEO of Brainsights a technology and insights company used by brands and creators to surface unconscious biases and measure the performance of ads and media.  


Top image: The Young Turks