- More than 4,315 brands ran ads on sites with COVID misinformation, according to new NewsGuard research.
- Walmart, Pfizer, and the CDC were among them, the research showed.
- Ads end up on such sites as they are placed by ad tech platforms using automated algorithms.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in full swing, government agencies, nonprofits and big corporations are working to persuade Americans to get immunized.
But a new report suggests that some of their ads could be having the opposite effect.
Thousands of big-name brands across major industries have inadvertently run ads on websites promoting misinformation about COVID-19 over the past year, according to new research from NewsGuard, a company that uses journalists and artificial intelligence to comb through and identify misinformation across the internet.
More than 4,315 brands ran 2,000-plus unique ads on websites flagged by NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center for publishing COVID-19 falsehoods and conspiracy theories between February 2020 and 2021 — likely accounting for millions of ad impressions financed by ad dollars, according to the company.
The report underscores a growing problem for advertisers as more than 50% of their spending goes to digital ads that often end up on unsavory websites because they are placed by third-party vendors that use automated algorithms with little human oversight.
Brands whose ads ended up on these sites includes not only major corporations like Pepsi, Verizon, and Marriott, but also companies directly and indirectly involved with the vaccination effort such as Walmart and Kroger, which are distributing COVID-19 vaccines at their retail stores; Pfizer, whose vaccine is on the market and which is running its own PSAs; and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC, for example, advertised on COVID-19 misinformation sites including independentsentinel.com, which claimed that wearing a face mask increases the risk of COVID-19 and that a regimen of zinc and antibiotics can “cure” COVID-19; as well as on globaltimes.cn, a website that reported that the virus originated in Europe and which NewsGuard claims is run by the Chinese Communist Party.
In another example, Pfizer ads appeared on COVID-19 misinformation websites such as NOQReport.com, which has claimed that the pandemic was planned by Bill Gates and other billionaires; and theepochtimes.com, which has claimed that the virus was manufactured by humans.
Other prominent brands mentioned in the report include:
- Pepsi and Marriott, which also advertised on independentsentinel.com
- Kroger, which advertised on more than a dozen COVID-19 misinformation sites, including Intellihub.com
- Walmart, which advertised on 25 COVID-19 misinformation sites, including the Russian government-controlled propaganda site SputnikNews.com
- Verizon, which advertised on 35 separate COVID-19 misinformation sites including WorldTruthTV.com, which falsely claimed that 5G circuit boards caused the disease
The CDC, Pfizer, Pepsi, Marriott, Kroger, Verizon, and Walmart had not responded to Insider’s request for comment by the time of publication.
While many companies have taken measures to control how and where their ads appear, the complex nature of programmatic advertising means that their ads still end up slipping through the cracks — leading ads to sometimes being associated with issues including health, election, and voter misinformation, as another recent NewsGuard analysis showed.
Third-party advertising companies like Google’s DV360 and DoubleClick and The Trade Desk are the most widely used programmatic ad platforms, and as such are the ones that end up enabling the most ads on misinformation websites. Fully 67% of all of the COVID-19 misinformation websites with ad placements had Google advertising tags on them while 30% had tags from The Trade Desk, according to NewsGuard.
Google and The Trade Desk had not responded to Insider’s request for comment at the time of publication.
The onus is on these ad tech platforms to fix the problem, said Joshua Lowcock, EVP and chief digital and innovation officer at ad agency Universal McCann. Naming and shaming the brands only helps in the short term, leading to these companies cleaning up their inventory and resorting to putting the entire category of news on blacklists, harming legitimate publishers in the process, he said.
“The ad tech platforms that enable profiteering from misinformation need to be named and held accountable; they allow dishonest publishers into the ecosystem and then effectively place the burden on advertisers and agencies to clean up the mess,” he told Insider.
Misinformation has also become an increasing concern for company shareholders in recent months and social media platforms have also begun to crack down on it on their platforms in the aftermath of the Capitol siege.
Home Depot and ad holding group Omnicom shareholders have filed resolutions asking the companies to investigate whether their ad dollars have helped spread hate speech and misinformation. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter both barred former President Trump from their platforms and clamped down on content related to the “Stop the Steal” movement.
At the same time, publishers including Vox Media and The Washington Post are trying to solve for brand safety and adjacency concerns by building publisher marketplaces called Concert and Zeus, respectively.
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