'Lesbian' ban: Ad blacklists deprive LGBTQ news of revenue, study says

LGBTQ news sites are being denied revenue because words like “lesbian” and “bisexual” are being banned by clumsy advertising “block lists,” a study found.
By Tim Fitzsimons

Across the internet, companies buy ad space that appears alongside news, entertainment and sports articles. These purchasing decisions are made, in part, with ad verification partners that compare the articles' content with "block lists" of thousands of terms that advertisers want to avoid associating their brand with, like “shooting,” “kill” and “attack.”

It doesn’t matter if the article is positive (“City’s murder rate down to historic low”) or negative (“Gruesome murder shocks city”), because both articles would be banned by a keyword block list.

But a new study from CHEQ, which runs a competing ad verification service, found that nearly two thirds of all nonpornographic and nonexplicit LGBTQ news content is banned by these lists, because the lists often contain neutral LGBTQ terms like “lesbian" and “bisexual." Both PinkNews, a U.K.-based LGBTQ news site, and The Advocate, a U.S.-based LGBTQ news site, saw 73 percent of their positive or neutral content blocked by these lists.

The result, according to CHEQ, is that for LGBTQ news sites, the majority of their content may be unavailable for mainstream advertising. “This is severely damaging publishers’ ability to monetize premium content,” the report states, “making minority news and opinion unviable.”

"In the end, blocked words/blacklists hurt us all,” Orlando Reece, CEO of The Advocate’s parent company, Pride Media, told NBC News in an email. "We create content from an LGBTQ+ lens and use words that our community (as the general community) do not find offensive, such as 'lesbian,' 'queer,' etc. These words are part of our lives and how we communicate and identify with one another. Brand safety needs to be a conversation involving people, not technology that is ill-equipped for today’s digital publishing landscape."

Reece also said the ad-blocking appears to be worsening. He said Pride Media sometimes works with ad-buying agencies and brands to clean up these "blacklists" before something is published, but they don’t always have the opportunity.

“Some agencies’ blacklists are agency-wide and they cannot be adjusted," Reece explained. "In those instances we request a switch from blocking tags to monitoring tags, and this helps clean up the situation."

The CHEQ report comes amidst a crisis in LGBTQ news content. Just this past year, LGBTQ-dedicated news sites GayStarNews and Into shut down, and other mainstream sites that consistently shone a light on LGBTQ issues laid off staff.

Daniel Avital, CHEQ's chief strategy officer, said these advertisers are often progressive and seek to reach LGBTQ consumers, but a “technology deficit” is to blame.

“Companies struggle to determine the good stuff from the bad stuff, then the only recourse you have is to blacklist all of it," Avital told NBC News.

Avital said he spoke to the founders of GayStarNews, who confirmed that declining ad revenue “was one of the key reasons” they shut down this year.

“If you're an LGBTQ content creator, then you seem to be having a much harder time over the past two years to get ad dollars,” he said.

Surprisingly, the report notes, these block lists even affect sports sites, because they often use words like “shoot” for basketball. Sports site Bleacher Report had 67 percent of its neutral or positive stories blocked by these lists, according to CHEQ's report.

Avital said the majority of major U.S. advertisers use these "crude" block lists, which range in size from a few hundred to thousands of blacklisted terms. But since the bidding for internet ads is automated and happens nearly instantaneously, smaller brands still bid for ads to appear in the space that larger brands pass on.

"What happens is the price of this inventory just goes down, because the big advertisers aren’t bidding for it, so the next in line gets it," Avital explained. "So, if you’re able to monetize the content, you're monetizing it for a much lower price than you would otherwise."

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