Ad Tech & Programmatic

Reddit’s advertising policy seems to differ from subreddit to subreddit

New research may pull back the curtain on Reddit’s seemingly inconsistent approach to monetizing its communities.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images, Reddit

6 min read

R/mileycyrus. r/mensrights. r/daftpunk. r/floridaman. These are the subreddits where, for one reason or another, Reddit doesn’t appear to allow advertising, according to a third-party tool.

The results, pulled from the 2,500 most popular subreddits run through an API called Pushshift, show that despite spending the last decade courting advertisers and trying to address brand-safety concerns, Reddit’s actual brand-safety approach appears to be cautious, making it seem somewhat unpredictable and inconsistent.

Reddit has long addressed questions about the “safety” of its platform, as advertisers can fear content moderation that’s often left to, well, (unpaid) moderators. Since the spring of 2021, the platform has announced partnerships with the likes of Omnicom, WPP, and IPG in an attempt to build and legitimize its ad business. It has also partnered with Oracle and DoubleVerify, companies that specialize in brand-safety tech.

It’s more obvious why subreddits like r/mensrights and r/mdma apparently can’t run ads; it’s not as clear why Reddit appears to block ads on other communities, like r/islam, r/israel, and r/redhotchilipeppers. Meanwhile, according to the tool, r/christianity and r/drunk are able to host some ads.

The existence of labels that seem to signify how Reddit monetizes its communities isn’t surprising, considering Reddit offers different “inventory types” to advertisers. But the research pulls back the curtain on the otherwise often opaque practice of moderation and brand safety, aka how platforms decide where ads can show up. You know, the thing that makes them money.

“There doesn’t seem to be a clear rhyme or reason,” Chris Vargo, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Colorado and the co-founder of Socialcontext.AI, a contextual advertising company, told us.

Vargo first tipped Marketing Brew to the fact that an API was apparently disclosing Reddit’s brand-safety labeling. “There’s probably one person at Reddit who just goes through the subreddits and just makes this label. That’s the default to me, until they can prove there’s something else they’re doing.”

all_ads, no_ads, and some_ads

Marketing Brew was able to see these labels thanks to a tool called Pushshift, which is able to collect all sorts of data about what’s going on under the hood of Reddit, like whether a post is tagged as NSFW, contains original content, or has a spoiler, for example.

Another result it returns is something called “parent_whitelist_status,” which, though labeled as “unknown” by Pushshift’s creator, Jason Baumgartner, gives the following descriptors to subreddits: “all_ads,” “no_ads,” and “some_ads.” Baumgartner declined to respond to multiple questions and interview requests from Marketing Brew.

Marketing Brew asked Vargo to run the 2,500 most popular subreddits through the API to determine how Reddit is labeling its communities.

  • Subreddits like r/sex, r/4chan, r/guns, and r/depression were all labeled no_ads, but so was r/archerfx, a community dedicated to a popular animated television show, as well as r/ska, r/socialism, and r/stopsmoking.
  • On the other hand, r/alcohol, r/crypto, and r/religion were labeled all_ads.

It gets weirder: Subreddits tagged all_ads included r/politics, r/neutralpolitics, r/ukpolitics, and r/canadianpolitics. Meanwhile, r/americanpolitics, r/internationalpolitics, r/liberal, and r/conservative were all under some_ads.

We collected this data on June 11. As of publishing, all of the labels cited in this story appear to be correct, save for r/moderatepolitics, which was previously labeled no_ads but has since been updated to all_ads. On July 15, we saw an ad for the Wall Street Journal (lol).

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To be clear, as one moderator of the Phish subreddit told us, nobody wants ads in their subreddit. Nobody likes advertising. Sorry. Even so, last fall, it was reported that Reddit was expected to make $350 million in ad revenue, nearly double what it made in 2020. EMarketer expects Reddit to surpass $522 million by 2023. For reference, Twitter is expected to make $5.58 billion in advertising revenue this year.

Though Reddit declined to answer specific questions, spokesperson Amanda Geraldo told Marketing Brew that every new subreddit is labeled no_ads until it goes through a “manual human review” to gauge if it’s considered safe. She also said subreddits labeled as some_ads require advertisers to “opt-in or opt-out of advertising” and are considered “expanded inventory.”

Geraldo clarified that a “majority” of Reddit’s advertisers are running ads on the platform’s “standard inventory,” which is Reddit’s recommended setting that “provides balanced reach and protection.” She declined to comment on what all_ads signifies.

To be clear: Reddit didn’t respond to questions about whether these inventory types aligned with the three labels shown in the API.

Still, all of this is supported by Reddit’s own website for advertisers, where it says it takes a proactive approach to brand safety.

“We want Reddit to always be a safe and useful space for our users and advertisers. We don’t just leave that safety up to AI. Our approach is more all-hands-on-deck, so you can uphold your brand’s standards, while our community upholds our own,” noting that Reddit is “constantly reviewing and refining the list of permissible communities” for advertising.

But, when shown the labels by Marketing Brew, some advertisers’ responses were mixed.

“It feels like this has been done independent of any consultation with the advertising community…it probably tells you a bit more about the lack of sophistication, like the actual controls that they have in the community or their ad-approval process,” said Joshua Lowcock, global chief media officer at UM Worldwide.

He told Marketing Brew that advertisers can request and choose to run their ads on specific subreddits, with Reddit reserving the right to decline. The platform stopped serving programmatic ads last year, though advertisers can target audience interests and block keywords they deem unsafe thanks to its partnership with Oracle.

“It’d be fair to say that brands have a lot of nervousness around advertising on Reddit,” Lowcock said, calling Reddit “really a microcosm for the entire internet.”

Avi Ben-Zvi, VP of social for performance marketing agency Tinuiti, said that these labels were in line with conversations he’d had with the platform.

“I think they’re getting ahead of potential issues…I don’t think they want to go in and start to police subreddits,” he told Marketing Brew. Still, he wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that he couldn’t buy ads on r/indianapolis.

See the full list of subreddits and how they’re labeled here.

Do you work in advertising or media? Is there something we should know or haven’t covered? Drop a tip or reach out to Ryan Barwick at [email protected].

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.