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Rise of 'Fake News' Gives Brands a Shiver

Worries over brand safety create anxiety about programmatic buying

December 6, 2016

Growing awareness of fake news and “alt-right” sites have increased brands’ anxiety about where their ads appear. This is especially true of advertisers buying programmatically.

Significant Challenges to Using Programmatic Buying Effectively According to US Marketers, 2014 & 2016 (% of respondents)

Mike Baker, CEO of DataXu, a programmatic buying platform, said there has been an uptick in clients voicing their concerns about their ads appearing on such sites or next to content where fake news or racist language appears. “The concern that we’ve seen is around what’s perceived as hate speech,” Baker said.

Depending on the type of programmatic transaction method used, it can be difficult for advertisers to know with certainty where their ads may appear.

Even before the fake news phenomenon became widely discussed, advertisers were expressing increased fears about inventory transparency. According to a survey from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and Forrester Consulting, 59% of US marketers who responded said they felt “significantly challenged by the lack of inventory transparency” this year, up from 43% in 2014.

An August 2016 survey from Strata also showed increasing anxiety about inventory transparency among advertisers. Nearly 60% of ad agency professionals engaging in programmatic buying said they were concerned about inventory quality, while about 53% were fearful about the transparency of inventory. This was up from 49% and 48% in May 2015, respectively.

There’s a lot at stake. eMarketer expects US programmatic display ad spending to reach $25.23 billion in 2016, accounting for 73.0% of all display ad spending. By 2018, this will rise to $37.88 billion, or 82.0% of total spending on display.

To help address the issue of transparency, most demand-side platforms (DSPs) offer tools such as whitelists, blacklists and semantic technologies to help advertisers filter out sites and placements they may find problematic.

Whitelists allow advertisers to be more aggressive in their safeguards by indicating only those sites where they want their ads to appear, while blacklists allow advertisers to specifically indicate the sites on which they do not wish their ads to appear. Semantic technologies offer advertisers the ability to filter language and context to bar their ads from appearing on certain sites or next to certain types of content.

At least one study showed that marketers are not making wide use of these tools. Research from ANA and Forrester Consulting shows that only 51% of US marketers aggressively update blacklists, while 45% target whitelists.

Joe Zawadzki, CEO of MediaMath, a programmatic advertising solutions provider, agreed that advertisers need to be more aware of the filtering options out there, especially in the wake of emerging concern about fake news and “alt-right” content. “It’s important to have conversations both internally and with clients about these specific types of sites and messaging and to guide clients to make their own informed decisions about where their ads are seen,” he said.

But even when these safeguarding tools are used, they are not foolproof. ”Advertisers can’t just set it and forget it,” said eMarketer senior analyst Lauren Fisher. “They have to be diligent about checking their placements and the sites they appear on to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.”

Fisher warned that advertisers may not ever be able to protect themselves fully. However, “they can start to do so by understanding the capabilities of these technologies and taking a proactive stance in how they use them.”

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