Media buyers are using this tool to avoid misinformation

NewsGuard helps brands run ads on sites that publish trustworthy news.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Few marketers actually want their brands appearing alongside a site that calls John F. Kennedy a lizard man controlled by the Illuminati. And yet, because programmatic advertising is automated, brands can never be 100% certain their ads won’t fund disreputable sites. Unless brands have a clear list of which publishers they’re working with, their ads can end up all over the internet.

To solve this, media agencies like IPG Mediabrands, Omnicom Media Group, and Publicis have each recently signed deals with NewsGuard, a company created in 2018 that rates publishers.

  • It's not an ad-tech company. Instead, journalists vet thousands of sites using nine criteria, ranging from financial and ownership disclosures to whether they run fake news. Marketers then use this information to determine which sites are reliable—and which ones, say, claim vaccines contain microchips—so they can avoid running ads next to false information.
  • Brands can use NewsGuard’s data in a customized fashion. Some might be okay with running ads on publishers that don’t list corrections and retractions, for example, while others might opt to only appear on sites with high credibility scores.
  • Examples: The New York Times scores a perfect 100. Breitbart only rates a 49.5, with the tag: “The site has published false and misleading claims, including about Covid-19.”

The industry has long relied on blocklists of keywords—avoiding stories that include “Covid-19” or “Trump,” for example—to prevent ads from running next to false or unsavory content.

But keyword blocking might not account for the difference between CNN and a blog rife with hoaxes. So blocklists may actually hurt publishers, since they often prevent brands from running ads alongside legitimate news stories.

NewsGuard’s also given publishers more transparency from buyers about where they want to be.

“You’re evaluating based on quality metrics, as opposed to arbitrary classifications of a website,” Joshua Lowcock, US chief digital officer for Universal McCann and global brand safety officer for IPG Mediabrands, told Marketing Brew. He said more than half of IPG’s clients are using NewsGuard. In theory, NewsGuard also lessens marketers’ reliance on contextual advertising because brands would know they’d be marketing on a safe, reputable site, Lowcock explained.

One-two punch

So far, NewsGuard’s tools appear to be effective.

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According to a study released in May, one of IPG’s clients worked with NewsGuard to add more than 1,000 “highly trusted” sites to its approved list of publishers + remove several “unreliable” ones from its inventory. NewsGuard said the added sites lowered effective CPMs by 9% and drove click-through rates up 123%.

“This is the cliche of a win-win. You support real journalism, you keep your money away from the bad stuff, and it actually saves you money,” Steven Brill, NewsGuard’s co-CEO and cofounder, told us.

Not only does NewsGuard help brands, but it sells its services to your cousin who loves conspiracies. The company offers a consumer-facing browser extension that lets people see its ratings.

  • The browser extension tattoos a little green shield in search results or social media alongside a reputable publisher to verify it’s a good source of news, or a red shield if it isn’t up to par. The shields link out to a full NewsGuard “nutrition label” that includes additional details + a publisher’s overall score.
  • Currently, the consumer-facing business—which costs about $3 a month for subscribers—is more profitable than NewsGuard’s work with agencies, although Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard’s other CEO, said that could soon change.

Both businesses aim to serve one goal: making newsfeeds and search results “less of a cesspool,” said Crovitz, explaining that “unintentional programmatic ad revenue” ends up sustaining sites that marketers would rather stay away from in the first place.

NewsGuard still has room to grow. The company has yet to ink deals with Facebook, Google, or programmatic advertising company The Trade Desk. Ultimately, brands that rely heavily on performance marketing might still avoid services like NewsGuard if they’re concerned about reach.

This gets us back to the original problem of programmatic advertising—its automated nature means there’s no quick fix for some of these issues, said Claire Atkin, a misinformation activist and cofounder of Check My Ads. “At the end of the day, if you’re not checking your ads regularly, and if you don’t get clear, up-to-date dashboard-level information about what is getting blocked and why, you’re not in control.”

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