Data & Tech

Disinformation and ad-tech activists Check My Ads are starting a nonprofit

Status will allow the company to accept donations and apply for grants.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Watch out Big Ad Tech. The folks most famous for publicly shaming ad-tech firms and advertisers who may have inadvertently funded disinformation and fake news are expanding their work.

Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi, cofounders of Check My Ads and authors of the newsletter Branded, are starting a nonprofit. Named the Check My Ads Institute, they’re calling it the industry’s “first independent watchdog.” The institute will be able to accept funds from supporters of its work and can apply for research grants.

That money, they say, would be used to hire researchers and editorial staff, allowing for even deeper investigations into the dark and murky world of ad tech, marking a continuation of the work that’s already been published on their Twitter accounts and in Branded.

Some background: Many advertisers use brand-safety technology to avoid running their ads next to articles and content that could be deemed controversial, avoiding spice like someone with bad heartburn. It’s why keyword blocking lists let brands stop their ads from appearing within content that includes words like “Covid-19” or “Donald Trump,” for example, even though this practice has been shown to hurt legitimate news outlets.

  • And yet, because of programmatic advertising, ads from blue-chip brands can still end up on the deepest dredges of the internet, appearing alongside misinformation, conspiracy theories, and other assorted horrors.
  • Since advertisers may not know their ads are running on these sites, they can often be unwittingly funding the worst actors on the internet.

Some of Branded’s highlights include:

Atkin and Jammi are also included among the "liberal activists" Glenn Greenwald recently called “genuinely sick, dangerous and pathological” with a “rotted authoritarian psyche.”

Since June of 2020, Check My Ads has offered consulting services, speaking with nearly 200 different advertising and marketing teams about their ad strategy and best practices to avoid sites of ill repute. Their work involves hosting workshops on understanding brand safety and devising “brand safety guidelines” for marketers. But fewer than 40 of these teams paid Check My Ads for its services.

Check My Ads declined to provide their rate and their revenue, but said they are not starting the nonprofit due to a lack of funds from clients. “We were doing fine,” Atkin told Marketing Brew. They’ll continue offering consulting work, in addition to operating the nonprofit arm (legally, they will be two separate entities).

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“The real goal is to continue working in public; that’s where the real change is happening. Create that public accountability that helps accelerate the results we’re looking for. We can’t have the same level of impact working privately with clients,” Jammi told us.

For a $10 monthly donation, supporters will be called Check Mates (get it?), gaining access to Atkin and Jammi through private Zoom calls that will dive into the nitty-gritty of the work and research process. The Branded newsletter has roughly 8,000 subscribers, and they expect between 10% and 30% to become paying supporters of the new nonprofit.

Atkin and Jammi say that Check My Ads had reached out to other industry-led groups and trade bodies, but they were “exhausted as avenues of change,” said Jammi, pointing out that these organizations include some of the same ad-tech players, like OpenWeb, that Check My Ads has called out.

“We don’t think they’ve grasped how central their role is to funding this economy,” said Jammi. These trade groups are funded by “the same ad-tech platforms that monetize hate speech, bigotry, and false narratives. We can’t really expect any organization that partners with members of the ad-tech industry to provide meaningful solutions.”

The nonprofit’s board of directors will include David Carroll, associate professor of media design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, who once filed a legal claim against Cambridge Analytica for a copy of his personal data, Judy Shapiro, founder of ad-tech company Topic Intelligence, and Zach Edwards, an ad-tech researcher and the founder of Victory Medium, a digital analytics consulting firm.

“Until government regulators and elected officials start to address the real harms from ad-tech companies and their audience brokers, people will need to come together to fight back,” Edwards told Marketing Brew.

With more funding and more researchers, advertisers can expect Atkin and Jammi to increase their public flogging of ad-tech supply chains and the brands who may not know why their ads ran on sites like Breitbart.

“We want to help create enough of a precedent in our public work that ad-tech companies start taking proactive measures on their own to vet their own inventory,” Jammi said.

And if a brand really doesn’t want to appear in one of their tweets or newsletters, any advice?

“It’s an issue when people don’t check on their own supply,” said Atkin. “The biggest thing for me is to open marketers’ eyes to the fact that they need to be responsible for their own campaigns.”

+1: This summer, Atkin and Jammi spoke with Morning Brew’s B2B Executive Editor, Josh Sternberg, on why programmatic ads end up all over the internet.

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