This week it emerged that publishers were facing a £50m revenue deficit from the practice of brands use blocklisting technology to prevent their ads appearing next to content covering the coronavirus crisis. 

The situation is an unfortunate paradox for publishers, many of whom have experienced a spike in traffic since the coronavirus outbreak. The trend also comes at a time when there is evidence to suggest that people are paying more attention to online and print ads in the wake of coronavirus.

The trend hasn’t just affected content focusing on the distressing reality of the global pandemic – the often indiscriminate technology has also led to ads being pulled from seemingly innocuous or positive content, such as fitness workouts and entertainment recommendations to deal with the boredom of social distancing.

But should advertisers be braver? Should they be supporting publishers at a time when publishers’ ability to fund much-needed journalism is facing unprecedented strain?

Or are advertisers dutifully protecting their brands and doing what’s necessary to avoid the risk of badly placed ads?

Here’s what leading tech and media execs had to say:

Tracy de Groose, executive chair, Newsworks:
“While we have seen a huge surge in demand from readers for trusted, accurate reporting, advertising ‘blocklists’ are preventing adverts from appearing alongside online stories with the word ‘coronavirus’ in them.

“Our unified industry appeal to advertisers is incredibly simple: back, and don’t block British journalism. Please remove ‘coronavirus’ from your blocklists. Readers are relying on us right now, and we are relying on advertising to help ensure the public receive information and advice from the very best sources.”

Andy Webb, Commercial Director, iPaper and iNews:

“We are consistently ranked in the top 3 most trusted newsbrands online, and this is a position we hold dear.  So in a nutshell, as we strive to deliver the trusted journalism we so demonstrably can, it seems counterproductive and ill timed to be word blocking “coronavirus”, which not only prevents advertisers benefitting from the increased traffic and trust, it puts the very journalism that created it in the first place, at risk. Collaboration between brands and news providers on the word blocking issue cannot come soon enough.”


Fiona Wylie, CEO, The Brand Champions:
“My advice to the brands that I work with is that if there is any doubt in their minds, they should avoid appearing against content that they deem to not be brand suitable.  It is also essential that they remain true to their core values and to their pre-Covid-19 contextual targeting strategy. 

“Advertisers should not radically adjust this strategy and be mindful of posting irrelevant content or advertising against content that could have a negative impact. They should be sensitive to the current situation and stay true to their brand and what they know their customers want and ultimately, common sense and brand salience should lead the way.”

Nick Hewat, commercial director, Guardian News & Media:
“The same advertisers (blocking ads on newspaper sites) are running campaigns on radio and social media, where all the chat is about the virus, which is inconsistent, to say the least.

“Publishers are the only ones who are punished, in an advertising sense, for reporting and distributing the news that society desperately needs. The system needs an overhaul, the technology needs improving.”

Mike Follett, MD, Lumen:
“Lumen’s eye tracking technology shows that attention to ads follow attention to content. At the moment, all eyes are on coronavirus stories, and so that’s where advertisers should place their ads. Cautious marketers who blacklist news stories about the current crisis are missing premium inventory and doing their brands and customers no favours.”

“Keyword blocking was designed to help marshall the open market but has been applied universally to all sites including Premium Publishers that abide by codes of practice such as IPSO.

Liam Reynolds, MD, National Sales, JPI Media:
As such a blunt tool designed for the lowest common denominator is also blocking articles that have been curated content set in an appropriate context.

“Perversely this methodology is preventing advertisers from conversing with their customers in a highly engaged environment where their messaging will have more chance to cut through. A higher degree of thought is needed in the application of keyword blocking. On review Publishers feel that advertisers will reach a similar conclusion.”

Mattias Spetz, MD EMEA, Channel Factory:
“We are finding that there are varying approaches from our clients to brand suitability for coronavirus related content. Some of our clients are fine with appearing next to this type of content – in fact some advertisers actively seek it out. 

“However, for some brands it is the right approach to avoid it. What is absolutely apparent is that it cannot be a one-size-fits-all strategy for topical news content, and thus a nuanced approach that takes brand suitability into consideration is best. 

“Each brand will have their own tolerance levels and they are right to be cautious but should be mindful of ignoring the strong reach of publishers whose content is being consumed by millions of potential customers.”

Harriet Kingaby, Co-chair, Conscious Advertising Network:

“This is a test for the industry – can we play a role in ensuring a responsible media environment and flow of information at a time of international crisis? It’s time to think beyond brand safety, to human safety.

“We can no longer pretend that advertising money is a passive actor in this ecosystem, and we should be looking carefully at advertising spend, relationships with quality publishers should be treated differently to programmatic on the open web.

“The inadvertent demonetisation of content via block lists is strangling great journalism, which we need in times of crisis like this, and our ad spend is inadvertently creating a business model for fake news.

“The Conscious Advertising Network launched its new ‘Fake News’ manifesto earlier this year, which contains practical recommendations for brands seeking to identify and avoid funding misinformation, and also for rewarding sites who are reporting in a trustworthy fashion.

“This is an excellent time for advertisers to think more deeply about what their ad money is supporting. Advertising funds the internet, and, at a time of crisis, when people need great journalism, it’s time to lean into this responsibility.”

Kyle Fedyszyn, Director of Digital Transformation, The Shopper Agency:

“Due to the state of flux we are in , brands are doing all they can to survive right now. Like we’ve seen with consumers, we are faced with three zones: fear, learning and growth.

“We are seeing brands take any measures possible to reduce risk of association with covid-19, so we are seeing the impacts of the ‘fear zone’ here.

“But with traditional media like Radio seeing double digit growth as the nation tunes in whilst on lockdown, people are looking for guidance and clarity.

“Any brand should have the intention to influence consumer behaviour for the better, so taking a safe approach in a time of need is pragmatic. Brands should be looking to do the right thing.

“We have seen this recently with some of the biggest brands in the world stepping up. Now is the time more than ever for guidance and support as we navigate this together.”

Steven Filler, MD, Union Media:
“Advertisers avoiding sensitive news articles is nothing new, but in recent years this appears to have developed into a more blanket avoidance of news, politics and now, of course, coronavirus content.  

“I think advertisers all have a responsibility to support the media that their consumers rely on during these troubled times. With so much content and interest being generated around this topic at the moment, the first thing brands should do is question the need to block all coronavirus related articles, and if they do still feel that this is still necessary then at least look at other brand-safe content strategies that would still enable them to support these news publishers.”