Whether you’re surfing news sites online or leafing through a newspaper (remember them?), it seems that wherever you look, coronavirus is the only show in town at the moment. Given the impact on our daily lives, with much of the world in lockdown, this isn’t very surprising. But what may be a surprise is the adverse impact it is having on news publishers. 

According to a number of reports, coronavirus could cost publishers up to £50 million in lost revenue. 

How so? The problem is that whilst the virus may be generating a vast amount of content, and causing plenty of traffic, many brands do not want their ads to appear next to stories about PPE shortages and people dying alone in hospitals. They are therefore blacklisting words like “coronavirus”, “Covid-19” and more generic terms such as “virus” to ensure their ads steer clear of these problematic storylines. And because coronavirus is THE storyline at the moment, it means ad revenues are taking a massive hit.

Keyword blocking is a common practice in the digital advertising world, designed to help ensure brand safety. The problem we are seeing at the moment is that the blacklisting tech used by advertisers and agencies is a fairly blunt instrument. It prevents ads appearing alongside all content that refers to the blacklisted terms, regardless of the context. The result is that brands are not only avoiding the heavy stuff, like reports on daily deaths, or dubious reports on cures and treatments, but also more benign content, such as stories about how to cook creatively in lockdown when you can’t easily get to the shops. 

The potential damage faced by publishers is apparently so serious that it has prompted the UK Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, to write to the largest advertisers in an attempt to encourage them to stop the practice, or at least to fine-tune their approach. (You can find his letter here.) He has also encouraged all of us to buy more newspapers to support quality journalism. Chance would be a fine thing! Some commentators have pointed out the irony of a government minister encouraging us to pop to the shops to pick up a newspaper.

Mr Dowden isn’t the only one stepping in. 

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), the trade body for advertisers, has issued guidance to help advertisers, agencies and intermediaries to take a more targeted approach. It makes the point that not all Covid-19 content is damaging and offers tips on avoiding certain keywords, exempting trusted news providers and exploiting the full capabilities of blacklisting tools, so that harmless content such as stories about home-schooling are not unnecessarily avoided. 

Not to be outdone, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), the industry body for digital advertising, has released its own guidance to help brands support journalism, under the hashtag #backnotblock.

Will all this intervention make a difference? 

For some brands, coronavirus is just too toxic and you can understand them taking an indiscriminate approach to avoid the whole issue. Cheerily promoting products next to a story about a shocking rise in daily deaths is not a good look. Other brands have sought to suspend all advertising until it’s all over. Others still are preferring to be noticed in a different way altogether. Consider recent brand initiatives designed to support healthcare workers (here) and spread the social distancing message (here).

However, there is a concern that brands could be hurting themselves by blacklisting coronavirus content. With people largely confined to their homes, there has been a massive uptick in online news consumption. People want to read about what’s going on and, let’s face it, there’s not much else being talked about. By avoiding coronavirus, are advertisers equally just avoiding their audiences? 

And, of course, if things go so badly for publishers that many are forced out of business, advertisers may find there are fewer places to display their ads when all this comes to an end. That would surely be a lose-lose for everyone.