Vodafone is blocking its advertising from appearing on websites that feature hate speech or ‘fake news’ as it looks to protect its reputation amid wider industry concerns about brand messages appearing alongside unsavoury content.
The new rules mean Vodafone will move away from its previous blacklisting approach to instead adopt a whitelist. That will use content controls designed by its agency partner WPP, as well as Google and Facebook, with the aim of ensuring that Vodafone’s ads are only served “within selected outlets” identified as highly unlikely to be focused on harmful content.
Speaking to Marketing Week, Vodafone’s group director of corporate affairs Matt Peacock says that with the rise of programmatic advertising, the previous protections that used metadata to blacklist are not working.
“Blacklists are quite good at ensuring ads from brands do not appear on porn sites and gambling sites because those sites are easy to spot through metadata,” he explains. “The issue here is that fake news and hate speech is hard to identify algorithmically – you need human beings. That is the root of many of the issues.
“Our position is that it is not acceptable for ads to appear in loathsome places and that the current blacklist approach no longer works because it is not possible to be sufficiently assured that brands are not advertising next to or within content that we fundamentally disagree with.”
The new rules are aimed at ensuring that media outlets “whose predominate purpose is to communicate harmful material” are blocked. It would not apply to sites where some hate speech or fake news appears and rules that prohibit the company from threatening to pull advertising if they don’t like an editorial opinion will remain in place.
Vodafone defines outlets that may not make the whitelist as those that:
- deliberately intend to degrade women or vulnerable minorities
- present as fact-based news (as opposed to satire or opinion) that has no credible primary source (or relies on fraudulent attribution to a primary source) with what a reasonable person would conclude is the deliberate intention to mislead
This means, for example, that Vodafone would not pull ads from sites such as the Daily Mail, which have been the subject of criticism for some editorial content and targeted by groups such as Stop Funding Hate. It also does not mean that advertising will be pulled wholesale from YouTube, but that instead Vodafone will analyse each YouTube channel to see if it meets the criteria before deciding if it can appear on the whitelist.
The same is true for popular alt-right sites such as Breitbart news. While Peacock would not comment on the status of individual sites, he says all sites will be judged against the rules and if “in the eyes of a reasonable person the majority of the content is either fake news or hate speech” it will not make the whitelist.
The measures will be reviewed “regularly” to ensure the list of websites on the whitelist is “appropriate and neither too broad nor too narrow”.
“The depressing thing is that there are hundreds of thousands of websites that fail our tests – way more than people realise. There is some really horrible stuff out there and those are the outlets we are trying to lock out,” says Peacock.
Peacock hopes the move will have three major benefits. Firstly that its brand will not appear in places that are “harmful or damaging”. Secondly that Vodafone’s ad revenue does not go to the people creating these outlets. And thirdly that reputable outlets will get a larger proportion of ad revenue, bringing a “long-term benefit to professional journalism”.
What is also important is to ensure that outlets are allowed the freedom to express their point of view. “We don’t want a whitelist so narrow that we exclude diversity of opinion and people’s ability to say what they think online,” adds Peacock.
Tackling brand safety online
The decision to implement these rules comes amid growing concerns from brands that automated ad technologies are making it harder to keep track of where their ads are appearing. An investigation by The Times earlier this year found brand ads from the likes of Marks & Spencer (M&S), RBS and McDonald’s appearing next to objectionable content on sites including YouTube.
Hundreds of brands subsequently pulled their advertising from the site, with many yet to return as they await more assurances on where their ads will appear.
Vodafone was one of the brands to pull spend on all non-search Google advertising, although Peacock says the issue had been spotted by people at the brand “over a year ago”. The introduction of the whitelist means Vodafone is now back advertising with Google “under these rules”.