For Advertisers, Fake News Is Not The Biggest Problem

Email a Friend
Boxes of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes cereal are seen at a store in Arlington, Va. Kellogg's is facing a boycott organized by Breitbart after the cereal giant decided to pull its advertising from the right-wing website.

The fake news controversy is rocking the advertising industry. Kellogg's announced it's pulling ads from the site Breitbart — which publishes right-wing content. Other brands are planning similar moves. But there's one big reason to believe this is just a short-term reaction in the heat of the moment, not a long-term trend.

A new filter

In general, big brands don't want to place their ads next to a story or picture that could create a problem for them. They've built filters to ID and avoid things like porn, neo-Nazis or even, in some cases, real news.

"If there was an airplane accident in Florida you don't want to be promoting discount airfare or vacation travel in the context of that article," says Wayne Gattinella, CEO of DoubleVerify. He helps to build these filters.

Gattinella says his customers, the brands that advertise, recently requested that he build a new filter to blacklist news that is fake and/or extremist — rightwing or leftwing sites that use sensational headlines and have little to no real reporting. He says nearly half of the hundreds of sites he's identified in this category did not exist at the beginning of this year. They're newer, and according to his estimates, traffic to these sites has nearly doubled in the last month alone.

He pulls up an example of one site he's identified as extremist, called Young Conservatives. In between stories about Hillary Clinton's emails and president-elect Donald Trump saving manufacturing jobs, Gattinella and I each see ads from names we know. He gets American Express and Verizon. I get West Elm.

"You might have been looking at furniture last night or something similar and they're targeting you," he says.

That's exactly what happened.

Big brands could choose to take away their ad dollars and financially devastate this site, if they decide being there harms their brand. NPR reached out to Young Conservatives for comment, but the founders did not respond.

This week Kellogg's pulled ads from Breitbart, and in response Breitbart called for a boycott of Kellogg's products, like Frosted Flakes. But this standoff may just be a blip.

Gattinella says it's by no means a given that the entire industry will reject Breitbart-style content. "If advertisers are comfortable with that type of content, we're not being judgmental per se. We're not making the decision as to whether Disney should advertise on that site. Disney makes that decision."

Fake news versus fake eyeballs

And now here's a fascinating factor that'll drive that decision. While fake news is getting heat right now, the much bigger problem — for advertisers — is the problem of fake eyeballs.

Tolman Geffs, co-president of investment bank JEGI, which focuses on media, marketing and tech, explains: "What people do care about in the advertising world to a much, much greater extent is fraudulent ad impressions."

He's referring to bots.

Many websites game the advertiser by making it look like they've got way more traffic than they do, by unleashing an army of bots (computer software) to view and reload pages. Every new page view costs advertisers money — and they're sick and tired of paying for those fake eyeballs.

"So do I want to be next to fake news? No, not really," Geffs says. "What's my worry meter reading on that one versus my worry meter reading on fraudulent ads, where 40 percent of what I'm paying for has not been seen by a human being?"

For advertisers, he says, "fake eyeballs" is like a 9.5 on the worry meter, fake news just a 3 or 4 — and, to the extent that fake news draws real eyeballs, it may be even less of a problem.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.