‘Total whack a mole’: Rogue political ads create mounting brand safety problems for publishers

Election season ad spending has begun to heat up, and publishers’ ad ops teams have been playing whack-a-mole with political ads.

Revenue executives at five different publishers said the processes they put in place to evaluate the political campaign ads that their sites take programmatically, such as mandatory creative review, are being thwarted by ad buyers who are mis-classifying or mislabeling the ads, or obscuring the domains in ways that make it hard to block them.

Trump campaign ads in particular, these sources say, have slipped through the defenses because they were classified as consumer electronics ads, or because they were labeled as ads for totally different brands, such as Kraft Heinz. One source said its ad ops team got fooled by a pro-Trump ad that featured images of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

And with many of the ads aimed at readers located in swing states, where publishers do not maintain local ad operations teams, most publishers don’t find out the ads are running until an irate reader sends them screenshots.

Compared to the enormous scale of ads sold programmatically, the number of ads that gets through is small. But with political polarization at an all-time high — and ad spend through the roof as well — even the occasional ad has consequences, not just with left- or right-leaning readers but with staffers too, who see the ads as bad for the publisher brand.

“Every time there’s a [problematic] PAC ad, there’s a Slack uproar,” said Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of G/O Media, who said that G/O’s ad ops teams has been dealing with the problem all year.

“I don’t think it’s a conscious effort from the PACs or the campaigns to get their messaging onto sites like ours [through deceit],” Spanfeller added. “It’s just the vagaries of programmatic media buying.”

Digital political ad spending this election season is expected to soar past $1.3 billion, according to eMarketer estimates. While more than three quarters of that money is expected to go to Facebook and Google, hundreds of millions of dollars have been up for grabs, much of it programmatically, not just on display, but much more than normal on connected TV and OTT, where advertisers can deliver TV-quality spots efficiently.

Some news publishers, including Reuters and Bloomberg, have policies against accepting political advertising. But most publishers with programmatic businesses cannot say no to the infusion the ads provide every two years — especially in a year when the coronavirus-induced downturn which has hit publishers’ bottom lines hard.

And this year, unlike so many other advertising categories, politics have delivered: Revenue heads at two different publishers contacted for this story said they were ahead of their original revenue projections for political spending.

And publishers have benefited, to some extent, from Google announcing last year that it would not allow political advertisers to use custom audiences on campaigns run on its platform, driving more revenue into programmatic video markets, said eMarketer analyst Nicole Perrin.

“Our editorial leadership isn’t happy about it, but we’ll take political advertising of all sorts,” one chief revenue officer said. “It’s going to polarize most of our audience, [so] we try to minimize it as much as possible.”

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For this election cycle in particular, that has meant requiring exchanges grant them creative review of all political ads that they might run. Back in August, WarnerMedia’s advertising platform Xandr announced that it had launched compliance features for political advertisers which would include a human review of every political ad it distributed.

But these countermeasures don’t work every time. In order to figure out which ads to evaluate, publishers rely on metadata from the ad delivered by demand sources, and the ads are sometimes incorrectly labeled. Justin Wohl, the chief revenue officer of Salon, said he’s seen Trump campaign ads classified as Business & Industrial, Computers & Consumer Electronics, Finance, Law & Government and News, Books & Publications.

Efforts to block the ads at the domain level don’t always work either:  A full third of the ads served to Salon through AdX since July have come from unknown advertiser domains, Wohl said.

“With as many demand partners as there are in a typical programmatic stack, blocking every possible attempt through every possible channel is exceedingly difficult,” said Salon’s Wohl. “Especially when there’s deception and mislabeling going into the buys in the first place.”

Sources including Wohl acknowledged that both left and right could be hiding their domains or miscategorizing their ads, but: “The right-leaning ads are the ones that lead to angry emails from readers,” Wohl added, “so they’re much more so on our radar.”

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