Advertising block list issues resurface with war in Ukraine

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Going back a couple of years ago, here in Britain, like many markets globally, we saw newspaper publishers joining forces in the rallying call to advertisers to allow their content be positioned alongside COVID stories on trusted Web sites so they could continue funding our quality journalism during a period of crisis. 

Block lists can be damaging

Publishers asked advertisers to remove the top news brands from “block lists” (essentially, particular keywords such as COVID, disease, etc.), which keep a client’s advertisements away from stories about the pandemic. 

In the case of COVID, this resulted in news media companies being, in effect, penalised for producing informative journalism about the outbreak. 

Advertiser decisions to prevent their advertisements from appearing adjacent to news about the war takes revenue away from important journalism.
Advertiser decisions to prevent their advertisements from appearing adjacent to news about the war takes revenue away from important journalism.

The block lists prevented advertisements from appearing next to online stories with the word “coronavirus” in them. UK trade body Newsworks gave a passionate plea on behalf of the news media industry to the advertising industry to not block journalism with the removal of “coronavirus” from their block lists.

Their point was that readers rely on trusted media more than ever in such times, and that news media relies on advertising to assist in ensuring the public receive information/advice from reliable sources. 

The important role played by news media in reporting trusted and accurate news and information was generally acknowledged during the pandemic, and the feeling was that advertisers should support what is a crucial public service. 

Déjà vu?

There is now a feeling of déjà vu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resurrected the block list issue with advertising agencies and advertisers. There is evidence some advertisers are pulling their ads from the war coverage, and it’s making it difficult for publishers to monetise readership surges. 

The Financial Times, for example, recently stated some advertisers have paused their ad campaigns, jeopardising the media’s ad revenue source. Some are wanting guarantees their ads won’t appear next to any stories that highlight the war, which, of course, could apply to the vast majority of news content currently. 

There have been stories of advertisers asking for a blanket ban (via block lists), of words such as “Putin,” “war,” “NATO,” etc. Some agencies are even widening the list — not just including specific words as mentioned here but also more generic terms such as “volatility.”

Highly prized dwell times 

Chartbeat reports the number of articles on the subject of Russia and Ukraine grew by a factor of seven the last week of February, a figure no doubt increasing each week since. This was from their analysis of 4,500 news media Web sites, globally. They also found users were spending, on average, 43% more time reading stories on the war.

Of course, dwell times around such stories/pages are highly prized in terms of premium selling/high engagement and the likelihood of customer interaction with ads in such positions. 

Research shows advertisers are not hurt by advertisements being featured next to trusted journalism.
Research shows advertisers are not hurt by advertisements being featured next to trusted journalism.

The dilemma is one, however, of ethics and brand perception. Who wants their ads to be positioned next to headlines of death and destruction? It’s not a new phenomenon. Over years now, advertisers have asked for avoidance of positioning next to plane crash stories and the like.

Now, publishers tend to take the view that this precaution and avoidance has all gone too far. There seems to be little evidence advertised brands will be harmed by advertising around any news stories (providing, of course, the messaging in the ads is not inflammatory or controversial) and that the effect ultimately is that it hampers and even defunds the role of quality journalism in a democratic society.

Support for quality journalism

As recent as last year, a major ad industry study found brands should support quality journalism and optimise ad strategies across all news genres. See here for details.

It seems to me that the general feeling in the advertising community is one of wanting to avoid misinformation. But it appears a lack of understanding and even, dare I say, an element of laziness from within advertising agencies who impose blanket bans is causing a bad scenario for trusted media.  

Fighting back

Some publishers are fighting back (my advice to you). Inform your advertisers and agencies that a “one-size-fits-all” ban on certain keyword block lists can have a wider effect on trusted news sites, which can ultimately not just serve its community well and accurately, but also can help monetise better for all parties in the chain. 

We should lead the charge on proactively informing that advertising with trusted media environments can allay fears of brand safety and perception. In a world where fake news and misinformation does indeed exist, we should not all be treated the same.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Mark Challinor

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.