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Brands Are Blocking Ads Appearing Next to Black Lives Matters Content, Says Vice

Kathryn Hopkins

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Vice Media has called out major brands for blocking their ads from appearing next to content about George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and, in one instance, Black people.

In its presentation to advertisers at NewFronts, senior vice president for impact Marsha Cooke told the audience that the Brooklyn-based media company has received some “disturbing” additions to “antiquated” ad block lists from international companies during the nationwide demonstrations protesting the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people, as well as centuries of systemic racism.

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Ad block lists tend to be handled by third-party, so-called brand safety vendors and aim to control where ads appear on news digital sites by flagging key words that brands wish to avoid.

“Major international organizations have sent us block lists with some disturbing additions, including the words protest, George Floyd and even Minneapolis and in one instance an agency representing a large entertainment corporation sent us a block list that included Black people and Black Lives Matter,” she said.

“It was sent the very same week that the corporation issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s not OK. It proves advertisers are blocking this topic, making it difficult for us to support the most important job we have: journalism.”

As a result of this behavior by companies, Vice’s analysis found that CPMs for content related to protests against police brutality were down by 57 percent when compared with other coverage.

She also noted that many brands had blocked their ads featuring on stories about the coronavirus pandemic, a trend that other media companies have red flagged over the past few months.

While Vice’s audience’s news consumption was at an all-time high, the company saw an increase in inventory considered by algorithms and block lists to be brand unsafe from February to March. Topics around COVID-19 were 137 percent more likely to end up on block lists.

“Brands completely avoided one of the most important news stories in over a century,” Cooke said.

This is not the first time Vice has urged advertisers to rethink ad blocking. At last year’s NewFronts presentation, it said some companies had put “gay,” “Muslim” and “fat” on the block lists, but it has not seen any improvement.

“We got your applause but we didn’t see change. The lists just got longer,” Cooke added. “Our ask this year is twofold. If you’re a brand marketer, call upon your friends at your agency to review and question the words that make up their block lists — many of which consist of key diversity identifiers.”

She added that while the industry developed this system with good intentions, it’s now hurting advertisers, ensuring brands’ ads only appear next to pieces that seem pretty far removed from the national conversation — “a situation no one wants, not publishers, not agencies and not the brands that should want to be seen as relevant.”

Vice has been hit hard by falling advertising during the pandemic and was forced to cut 155 jobs worldwide in May. This was the second round of cuts that Vice, which owns Refinery29, Garage and i-D, had to make due to COVID-19. In March, it implemented a three-month-long pay cut for many employees. As part of this, executives saw their pay reduced by 25 percent, with chief executive officer Nancy Dubuc taking a 50 percent cut.