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For Advertisers, Fake Eyeballs May Be Bigger Problem Than Fake News

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 14, 2016 7:39 am

The post-election uproar over fake news and far-right websites is taking its toll on the advertising industry. Kellogg's announced it is 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 may include sensational headlines or little original 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/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The post-election uproar over fake news and far-right websites is taking its toll on the advertising industry. Kellogg, the maker of Corn Flakes and Pop-Tarts, has said it would pull ads from Breitbart. The site was until recently run by Donald Trump's adviser Steve Bannon. It's been called racist and extremist. Other brands have made or are planning similar moves. But there's one big reason to believe this is just a heat-of-the-moment reaction and not a long-term trend. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: 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.

WAYNE GATTINELLA: For example, 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.

SHAHANI: Wayne Gattinella, CEO of DoubleVerify, helps to build these filters. He says his customers - brands that advertise - recently requested that he build a new filter to blacklist news that is fake and/or extremist, right-wing or left-wing 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.

GATTINELLA: Young Conservatives - the site is actually called Young Cons, but it's shorthand for Young Conservatives.

SHAHANI: We load the page, and in between stories about Hillary Clinton's emails and President-elect Trump saving manufacturing jobs, Gattinella and I each see ads from names we know. He gets American Express and Verizon.

GATTINELLA: But they may be targeting me. You might actually get different ads.

SHAHANI: Yeah, I get West Elm.

GATTINELLA: Yeah, you might have been looking at furniture last night or something similar and they're targeting you.

SHAHANI: That's exactly what happened.

Big brands could choose to take away their ad dollars and financially devastate this site if they decide being here harms their brand. NPR reached out to Young Cons 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FROSTED FLAKES ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Show them what you can do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yo, tiger.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The taste of...

SHAHANI: 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.

GATTINELLA: If advertisers are comfortable with that kind of content, we're not being judgmental per se. We're not making the decision as to whether, you know, Disney should advertise on that site. Disney makes that decision.

SHAHANI: 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: What people do care about in the advertising world to a much, much greater extent is fraudulent ad impressions.

SHAHANI: Investment banker Tolman Geffs with JEGI focuses on media, marketing and tech. And fraudulent ad impressions is the industry jargon way of saying bots. Many websites game the advertiser, make 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.

GEFFS: So do I want to be next to fake news? No, not really. 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?

SHAHANI: For advertisers, fake eyeballs is like a 9.5 on the worry meter. Fake news, just a three or four, he says. And to the extent that fake news draws real eyeballs, it may be even less of a problem. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.