Did you fund COVID or election misinformation?

Because over a thousand different brands did.

That was the conclusion of NewsGuard’s Election Misinformation Tracking Center, looking at advertising patterns on untrustworthy websites.  Progressive Insurance placed 298 ads across 25 election misinformation web sites.  Walmart ran ads on a site that claimed that Bill Gates planned COVID-19 and the CIA helped Democrats flip voting machine votes. American Express advertised on Sputniknews.com, a Russian government propaganda site.  Disney advertised on sites that called COVID a hoax and peddled fake cures for the disease.  (How a disease can both be a hoax and require treatment is still unclear, but these sites are not known for their intellectual consistency.)

Nonprofits were not spared from this, with some organizations advertising on up to 18 different misinformation sites.  (You can read the article if you want named names — we have no desire to shame organizations trying to do right.)

Why did these organization do this?  Because of programmatic advertising.

Programmatic advertising isn’t inherently bad in and of itself.  It makes sense to work to attract donors at the lowest possible cost and that means going across a lot of sites that don’t just aggregate themselves.

However, Google’s advertising engine advertised on 80% of election misinformation sites; The Trade Desk advertised on more than half.  And more than two-thirds of these sites also spread COVID-19 misinformation before election misinformation. 

The answer, then, is that your programmatic advertising engine isn’t going to protect your brand.  You must protect your brand.

When you advertise on these sites, you aren’t just funding that messaging.  You are putting your ads in a context where they will not work.  Context matters.   People like to think of themselves as consistently the same person throughout their lives.  They are not.  They are willing to say things at a football game that they would not say in front of a child or parent.  They treat their boss differently than the person whose boss they are.  They behave better dressed to the nines than in stained sweatpants; people treat them differently too.  Every waking moment, people are some combination of core self and environment.

Thus, where your message is received affects how your message is received.  If someone likes the context in which an ad appears, they are more likely to like and remember the ad.  If someone trusts the source, they are more likely to trust the headline, even if it’s the same headline with the sources randomized. 

Much programmatic advertising doesn’t acknowledge this, with a goal of turning each person into an eyeball, one no more valuable than the next. 

But it does matter.  Benignly, imagine what you’d think if you saw a luxury brand in a discount bin or a dollar store.

Or, don’t imagine.  Think of the violinist who played for almost an hour at DC’s L’Enfant Plaza subway entrance at the height of morning rush hour.  He cleared $32.17.  This wouldn’t be remarkable except that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the great classical masters who can normally command up to $1000 a minute for his playing.  He was playing on a $3.5 million-dollar Stradivarius.  Only seven of the thousand people passing him even paused in their daily grind.   Context matters.

Each of programmatic engines allows you to opt out of certain sites and certain types of sites.  As you can see, most organizations — even huge organizations like AmEx, Disney, and Walmart — think that this a Ron Popeil set-it-and-forget-it activity.

It isn’t.  We need to scrub our sites to make sure we aren’t funding our own destruction.  We must be the advertising change we want to see in the world.  We must vote with our dollars.  And we must not cheapen our brands by putting them next to the malicious and seditious.

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