WARC’s Alex Brownsell highlights how advertisers can draw on recent experiences with COVID-19 misinformation to manage brand safety during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The contrast could scarcely be starker: as brave journalists risk life and limb to report from the front line, Russia has hastily introduced new ‘fake news’ laws, threatening to imprison individuals for up to 15 years for telling the truth about Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Publishers like Bloomberg, Reuters and Condé Nast have been forced to halt all operations in Russia.

Amidst the human tragedy unfolding in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol, brands are finding themselves under pressure to support sanctions measures. This goes beyond intentions to trade in Russia – companies are being scrutinised to the extent to which their sizeable advertising investments might support Russia’s war machine.

For organisations like Unilever, the answer is to suspend all marketing and media activity in Russia. Of the 31 global brand owners surveyed by the World Federation of Advertisers, representing $43bn in global ad spend, three in four have “reallocated, reduced or cut spend” in Russia altogether – an approach recommended by Stephan Loerke, the WFA’s CEO.

Politicians and media platforms have made it more difficult for Russia to monetise state-controlled media outlets like RT. Media owners including Microsoft, Twitter and Snapchat are halting ad sales to Russian entities. Nevertheless, the information conflict unfolding beyond Russia’s borders makes life tricky for brands, especially in digital media.

Misinformation is a $2.6bn problem but advertisers are battle-hardened, having spent the last five years navigating the rise of populism, the Trump presidency, Brexit and COVID-19. By learning the lessons of those events, advertisers can plan and buy media in a manner that both upholds brand safety standards and also has a positive impact on the fight against Putin’s Russia.

1. Unchecked audience targeting can lead brands into dangerous places

The advantages of programmatic media buying are well-known; advertisers can gain significant efficiencies from using ad tech to target audiences – both across the open web and within platform environments. However, as many marketers have found out over the last few years, this unchecked approach can also result in their brand appearing against illegal, hateful and downright untruthful content.

Since 2017, platforms like YouTube and Facebook have worked hard to minimise the likelihood of an ad appearing against offensive videos and posts. However, many corners of the web remain a cesspit of conspiracy theories and deliberately falsified journalism, in which Russia’s warped ‘narrative’ of the Ukrainian conflict can flourish.

In a blog post, Rob Rakowitz, the WFA’s Initiative Lead for GARM (the Global Alliance for Responsible Media), urges brands to take a more proactive approach to managing programmatic media, and to use initiatives like Ads for News to help identify premium publishers across local markets.

“Consider restricting where you buy and how you buy. Indirect buying via programmatic must be scrutinized to the fullest extent. Indices within indices that can obscure outlets, where bad actors play a ‘game of submarining’ should be removed,” said Rakowitz.

“Ask your partners what they are doing to chase misinformation off their platform, how they are managing their own inclusion and exclusions lists for monetisation.”

2. Avoid clunky keyword blacklisting techniques

All too often in recent years, publishers have found themselves punished for the quality of their journalism. At times, it has been harder for media owners to monetise important editorial work on the pandemic and climate change than it has been for them to earn ad revenues from ‘softer’ content such as puzzles and recipe ideas.

A key reason for this has been the implementation of keyword blacklists, which aim to ensure that brands are ‘safe’ from appearing against “negative” newsworthy content, no matter how important that story might be for the reader. Last year, The Telegraph reported it had 40 million “unmonetised impressions” on news and politics content.

More troublingly, VICE Media noticed terms as broad as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Muslim’ were being used more commonly than words like ‘rape’, ‘death’ and ‘gun’ in advertising keyword blocklists, and that CPMs for articles about Black Lives Matter protests were 57% lower than for other coverage about the social justice movement.

The WFA’s Rakowitz urges advertisers to work with “trusted” disinformation specialists like NewsGuard and GDI to ensure that keyword inclusion and exclusion lists are “informed”, and will support quality publishers at a time when their journalism is needed more than ever.

3. Brands are wrong to fear ‘hard’ news

The first major brand safety controversy emerged within hours of the Russian military action commencing, when Applebee’s dancing cowboy ad appeared on CNN on a split screen alongside the headline “Russia invades Ukraine”. The QSR chain registered its disappointment with CNN and pulled its spend with the broadcaster.

Buffeted by the divisiveness of news topics like the Trump presidency and Brexit – not to mention concerns around wall-to-wall COVID-19 coverage – media owners fear that Russia’s invasion will become the latest ‘hard’ news story that brands choose to avoid.

A growing body of evidence suggests marketers would be wrong to do so. A global survey by Verizon Media found that 91% of respondents “want to hear from brands they trust” during the pandemic, and that 29% prefer to receive those messages in “trusted news environments” rather than via social media.

In 2019, Newsworks, the UK’s body for commercial news media, partnered with Neuro-Insight to explore whether unconscious brain responses to ads were affected by their positioning alongside different types of news. The ‘Hard News Project’ found that average ad dwell time is 1.4 times higher in a hard news environment. Furthermore, responses peak for ads in hard news, suggesting a greater likelihood of key messages being encoded into memory.

A 2021 study by Reach, a UK publisher, concluded that the level of content “intensity” (i.e. a sliding scale from celebrity gossip through to news about terrorism) did not adversely impact brands when ads were shown in a “trusted” digital newsbrand. However, responses were “significantly more negative” when those same ads were displayed in unfamiliar media environments.  

4. Adopt a more conscious approach to media

Last September, WARC partnered with the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) for a guide to how brands can adopt a more “conscious” approach to media

According to Jake Dubbins and Harriet Kingaby, co-founders of CAN, conscious media investment is about making “responsible, deliberate and conscious decisions” on what media to prioritise, as well as what to “actively eliminate”, such as disinformation and online hate. These issues go to the heart of media planning and buying during a conflict such as the one we are witnessing in Ukraine.

It can appear a daunting task to rein in an unbridled audience targeting media strategy, but brands and agencies should know they are not alone in this pursuit, and that advice is at hand. 

The WARC Guide recommends appointing someone within the marketing team to build a contact list of key civil society groups, such as Stop Funding Hate, The Global Disinformation Index and the United Nations, which can advise them on how to avoid dangerous and untruthful narratives emanating from Russia.

Click here to read the WARC Guide to conscious media investment