Advertising group aims to cut down on practice that harms news publishers

(Reuters) - A digital advertising trade association has formed an initiative with more than 110 companies that it hopes will reduce the use of a common advertising practice that has siphoned revenue away from news publishers.

The Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) on Thursday launched a certification program that includes major advertisers such as Walmart, advertising agencies such as WPP’s GroupM and media companies such as the Financial Times and Hearst. Together, they have agreed to a set of standards aimed at improving brand safety by preventing ads from appearing next to unsuitable content online.

By helping the industry agree on a set of standards, TAG hopes advertisers will not need to resort to a practice known as keyword blocking, which uses advertising technology to prevent ads from appearing on any content that contains certain words, and can inadvertendly cause news publishers to lose ad revenue on articles that are not actually unsuitable content, Mike Zaneis, chief executive of TAG, said in an interview.

Although the practice is not new, concerns about keyword blocking were heightened at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March, when thousands of advertisers blocked the word “coronavirus.”

Hundreds of news organizations across the United States that rely on ad revenue, including Buzzfeed and Gannett, announced a rash of layoffs as brands slashed marketing budgets, but also sought to avoid negative news.

“The industry had to learn that news is brand-safe, period, full stop,” Zaneis said.

“We’re making this a global program to bring the industry together to learn these lessons,” he added, referring to TAG’s new brand safety certification program.

Zaneis, who also cofounded an organization called the Brand Safety Institute, said the group created “inclusion lists” of local news organizations at the height of the pandemic that advertisers should avoid blocking.

In June, the ad industry and news publishers once again confronted keyword blocking after the death of George Floyd set off nationwide protests and advertisers began blocking related keywords, he said.

TAG’s new initiative will require buyers and sellers of ad space to agree on a set of brand safety criteria, and have independant audits to confirm they are adhering to it. Ultimately, the industry will lessen its reliance on “blunt instruments” like keyword blocking that prevent the funding of journalism, Zaneis said.

Reporting by Sheila Dang. Editing by Gerry Doyle