Help Brands Blacklist Sites That Don't Fit With Their Brand

One of the issues with the emergence of programmatic and re-targeted advertising is that brands target people not publications with their ad spend. And the result is a brand’s ads end up on sites that they don’t really want them on. Brands can blacklist publishers they don’t want to do business with but they have to choose to opt out. And they need to be notified when this happens.

I saw a cool approach to dealing with this yesterday. Craig Shapiro blogged about a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants.

Here is how it works:

People take a screenshot of an ad running on a site that is likely not appropriate for that brand, they tweet that screenshot to the ad’s parent company to notify them of the placement, and tag Sleeping Giants in the tweet.

Then the word spreads. Sleeping Giants promotes each tweet to it’s 11,000 followers. It also offers simple instructions how to blacklist sites from your ad campaign, so your brand won’t show up on objectionable publishers sites.

I followed Sleeping Giants today and will participate in this community driven effort to help brands keep their ads off objectionable websites. You might want to do that as well.


Comments (Archived):

  1. David Semeria

    It’s not too clear to me why I should go out of my way to help brands. It’s not like they’re one of the weakest or downtrodden parts of society….

    1. fredwilson

      i think this is really about hurting certain publishers to be honest

      1. David Semeria

        Ah, got it.

      2. Guesty McGuesterson

        like the ones that begin with a ‘B’ and end with a ‘rietbart’?

        1. ShanaC

          Why would I want to buy from a brand that whips up people about me and my fiance? I grew up orthodox jewish, how do you think it feels to have a discussion with your fiance about if someone calls him a race traitor if he stands next to me.Why shouldn’t I want a ban on products that created an atmosphere where I have to have that conversation? I’m a us citizen with 5 generations in this country on my father’s side, including people who volunteered for the military, and relatives who served in the executive branch. That is called being reasonable, last I checked. I like being an American, and it’s patriotic to make sure that people who want to serve this country can do it irrespective of how one group treats them because of ethnic or religious background. To allow anything else in my book is supporting something akin to treason. It means that you do not care for the rule of law and the reasons why the Constitution was framed the way it was, including why the Bill of Rights was added as part and parcel to ratification. The only thing preventing me from saying it is an actual form of personal treason is essentially the presence of the bill of rights itself.The fact that you are that level of anti-American and unpatriotic disgusts me.

      3. Jake Baker

        Agreed – just commented about it above. This is a boycott/divestment strategy… My fear is that there is a universal trend towards tribalism right now that is not likely to penetrate increasingly polarized and opposite viewpoints in the country and the world. Killing Breitbart is only a short term fix (e.g. chopping off one of a hydra’s heads) — the much bigger question is how can the readers of Breitbart be engaged and connected with such that they voluntarily stop reading the site? That’s a more permanent and structural solution.

      4. Twain Twain

        @hymanroth:disqus raises a point about incentivization. One of the ideas around Blockchain is that users should be paid for their value activities online.How such a new business model would work is open for exploration.Jaron Lanier, one of the inventors of Virtual Reality and now in MS’s Research Group, made some observations about how translation AI uses the work of millions of human translators behind the curtains but they don’t get paid for that.It’s part of his and others’ concerns about how automation will increase human work going unpaid.A minute worth watching from 18m25s onwards.

        1. LE

          I think the ship has sailed on incentivization.It’s very clear that certain individuals will put in effort when not getting paid rather than be given a trivial amount of money. Karma over $$. This is one of the reasons (not the entire reason) that people help friends move for pizza but probably wouldn’t do it if asked for $5 per hour. Ditto for attorneys. Will do pro bono work but not work for $75 per hour.There are examples of people in the real world doing things that don’t result in a large amount of money (green stamps, certain coupons etc.) but I am not seeing it as a driving force of online behavior.

          1. Twain Twain

            People are essentially altruistic and love sharing.Maybe incentivization is the wrong word. Maybe the word is reward for work.

      5. LE

        Streisand effect says the opposite may very well happen.The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware something is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread the information is increased.

        1. Tom Hughes

          As I understand it, this is not about trying to conceal something or limit access to it; it’s about trying to highlight an association that one party might prefer to avoid. In the ideal outcome, a publisher will ask an advertiser like Kellogg’s, “how can we get you back?” to which a sensible answer might be “stop publishing vicious nonsense.”

          1. LE

            My point is that if someone feels that a site is offensive then bringing attention to it will create more readers. For example I never heard of Breitbart until the election. An article saying “Kelloggs n’ Breitbart” is ultimately good for Breitbart or potentially another objectionable (in the eyes of the beholder) site.

          2. Tom Hughes

            Agreed — that’s definitely a risk. The hope is that the few extra eyeballs will be less valuable than the lost revenue. I doubt that my looking at a Breitbart page has any upside for Breitbart, whereas my custom with an advertiser by definition is of value to that advertiser.Clearly the Kellogg’s boycott got the attention of people in the Breitbart organization, suggesting that a nerve was struck and that the revenue implications are non-trivial. More generally (as is discussed by other commenters), I see this as just a test of what will probably be a multiplicity of approaches to the fake news / hate speech problem and the inadvertent support for fake news and hate speech generated by today’s ad-industry structure and ad-tech.

          3. LE

            I kind of reject on it’s face the idea that an advertiser should be boycotted as a result of where their advertising ends up either knowingly or unknowingly. I don’t like that type of crowd justice (even if it’s called protest or boycott). While there are probably going to be some obvious exceptions to this it gives to much power and control to mobs of people.To be clear what I mean is I don’t like the idea of people saying they will boycott Kelloggs because their advertising appears on a site like Breitbart. (As opposed to perhaps Kelloggs sponsoring the Nazi parade which has no chance of happening but I would support as an clear extreme).

          4. Tom Hughes

            Agreed (again). The thought is not that one would boycott Kellogg’s, just advise them that the Kellogg’s <> Breitbart connection is possibly a connection they would prefer to avoid. Over time, if as you say Kellogg’s starting sponsoring extremist marches, that would suggest stronger action. From Kellogg’s perspective, this is possibly an opportunity to state their brand values, which I imagine include wholesomeness, inclusion and due regard for science.

          5. cavepainting

            Yes, in today’s world, all publicity is good. Negative attention that makes a site a pariah will drive attention and increase readership. Unfortunately, that is the way human nature works, especially when there is polarization and our definitions of good and bad are all very different.

        2. PhilipSugar

          I like that term. Had never heard of it. It expresses my sentiments exactly.I am not making a political statement at all here. I just care about business. I love to observe.I asked my supermarket manager if Kellogg’s sales were down?Answer :50%He had never heard of Brietbart, but he did after he asked WTF is happening? Why do I have to cut my order so drastically?

          1. LE

            In theory someone could AD-DOS a company in order to manipulate their sales and/or stock using a technique like this.I heard that traders are writing algorithms based on Trumps tweets to try and profit.

          2. William Mougayar

            So, this is why Tit-for-Tat is bad news for all involved. Tomorrow another brand might get hurt, and it degenerates from there.

          3. PhilipSugar

            It’s really bad because stores like Walmart, Kroger, and Safeway have terms that if you don’t sell your allotment they can jam it back to you and you pay the shipping. Since they pay net 90 days you are screwed. It gets even worse because of expiration dates.Think you are going to push that cereal off to the Dollar stores??? Have fun with that. I’m sure at some price you can dump it.They say when you seek revenge dig two graves.

          4. PhilipSugar

            I thought about this on a plane. There is a famous George Bernard Shaw Quote: “Never wrestle with a pig you both get dirty and the pig likes it”If Kellogg’s doesn’t want to advertise on a site just don’t do it; don’t promote it when it puts huge amounts of your already struggling business at risk.Think about it: 50% of Walmart Women voted for Trump they say, lets guess 50% know about this or care, and then add back in the fact that husbands might object to eating that brand of cereal as well. (I’m not being sexist here the vast, vast majority of grocery purchases are by women or controlled by women)You are talking about $1B of sales at risk. Not that you are going to lose that, but you put it at risk. Let me tell you first hand, if your stuff is not selling Walmart will put it in worse spot and put what is selling in your spot especially if it is a house brand. They love that, they make more margin on that. They hate selling name brands.That adds to the spiral.

          5. ShanaC

            You put the other 50% at risk, and I’d bet good money that the 50% who want the brand ban are higher spenders/higher value brands (thinking kashruth vs coco puffs) (based on location alone)

          6. ShanaC


          7. ShanaC

            It is short term pain. Slightly bring up ad spend elsewhere, and stop telling people who you blacklist or don’t, and sales will pick right back up in 6 months

    2. Gautam Mishra

      Might be worth considering if those brands are inadvertently making fake news viable? The enemy of my enemy is my friend…

      1. LE

        What about The Onion? Would you ban ‘fake news’ on that? Or do you assume that everyone knows that is a fake news site? They don’t. [1] Or lets’ take a Saturday Night Live parody. Sure everyone knows it’s a comedy show but do you actually think some of the skits they do don’t change people’s opinions? What about art and entertainment (and video games) that spread objectionable content?I don’t read Breitbart but I just took a look at this article which to me at least appears clearly satirical and over the top. Actually like something that I might read (if I read it) on the Onion:…[1] As an example you would be amazed at the amount of emails that I get from customers who take spam that is obvious to me as being real. Every day almost. Forget fine print they don’t even read the regular print (really).

        1. pointsnfigures

          or MSNBC, or CNN…..

        2. Gautam Mishra

          I’d agree with you if this was literally about banning publishers from the internet. But that’s not what this is about. This is just about reporting an association that a brand may want to review because it may be one they are unaware of and would be unlikely to support. i.e., the resulting action here is not that a publisher is being banned – it is that a brand is opting out of a particular association IF lots of people report it, and the publisher only goes broke IF all brands decide to act on it. i.e., the judgment and resulting action here doesn’t sit with an individual, it sits with the brands and with the collective wisdom of the crowd. So one person reporting something might not lead to a brand pulling out, but if millions of people point it out the brand may well consider it. The aggregate signal matters.Separately, the issue with satire in news is particularly complicated. Malcolm Gladwell tackles it in his excellent podcast Revisionist History. But even so, the main point is still that if millions of people suggest there is a negative association resulting from a piece of satire, or any other content, it’s probably something the brand would (and should) review. In fact, brands already do try to do this through social media listening tools. The point of Sleeping Giants is just that this channel (i.e. programmatic) suffers from a lack of transparency and so this is an attempt to fix that by creating a feedback loop. Very different from an arbitrary and knee-jerk decision to ban a publisher from the internet – ironically the very thing people seem to be asking Facebook, Google et. al. to do.

          1. LE

            Many good points. But one thing I am (still) worried about is this:”IF lots of people report it”There are many ways to game that by getting a cabal together. Then typically as we have seen most brands would tend to bend under what appears to be overwhelming pressure (I can just hear the headlines on the Nightly News they call it ‘mounting pressure from…’ and then they build a story around it because people can’t interpret what the significance of the numbers are.

          2. Gautam Mishra

            It’s possible, but let’s say the mechanism does get hijacked – i.e., a sinister cabal games the system and pressures a brand to pull ads from a credible / satirical source. The brand can still decide whether to cave to mounting pressure…. or to turn it into a statement about their principles, beliefs, etc. and in the process engender greater loyalty from people outside the cabal, a la Kellogg and Breitbart.

        3. ShanaC

          The onion labels itself as fake news. Brietbart labels themselves as real

          1. LE

            Nothing on this page, as only one example, says that it’s fake:…In fact, on the same page there is a story about John Glenn.On the home page it even says “America’s Finest News Source” how would someone know that the Onion is fake? Would my 12 year old know that? Would anyone not familiar know that except if they read enough that they finally ‘got it’?

  2. Gautam Mishra

    Interesting. Could be a good solution for fake news. Will check it out. Thanks.

  3. cavepainting

    I do wonder if brands really understand all the downsides of targeting advertising to people and following them around the web?Without the right context, advertising is worse than noise. The brand gets tainted by what its ad is surrounded by and may leave a permanent mark on the prospect. It also violates a cardinal principle: Advertising need not help, but it should never harm the brand…Add to this the general consumer apathy to display ads, rampant fraud, flawed measurement systems, and imprecise attribution to the final sale, it is time for marketers to question the real value of a) programmatic and b) non-search advertising sold through intermediaries, and not directly by publishers.The messy stack of ad-tech companies that participate in brokering ads to people are the modern day equivalent of black magic.They seem to work, but do they really? They seem to deliver millions of impressions, but can we know the real impact (both positive and negative)? The agency declares a great ROI, but do we really know for sure ? No, No and No, and it is time for people to call the BS.

    1. ShanaC

      Yes. I was at a conference about this

      1. cavepainting

        I hope it was useful. What was the biggest take-away in your mind ?

  4. JimHirshfield

    Hunting season on bad publishers.

    1. ShanaC

      I should email you about the hunting season

      1. JimHirshfield


  5. jason wright

    I don’t even like being chased around the web by cookie driven advertising. The unprompted ads send me away.Is advertising native to the web? The high levels of pollution indicates that it is not. Advertising comes from the one way mediums of print, radio, and telly. The web is not one way.

  6. William Mougayar

    I’m not sure I like this approach. We’re mixing efficient robots/algorithms with people’s feelings and opinions. The definition of “objectionable” can be subjective, and it could mean left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, etc. So it ends up polarizing issues further and keeping people divided. This could end up being like whack a mole. If you don’t like a site, don’t visit it. I’m not a fan of blacklisting. It’s a cope out for dealing with an issue head on.

    1. Twain Twain

      Pls see my email. There’s a better way of doing blacklists that leverage AI logic whilst factoring in human subjectivity.We ended up frame-working things as poles (left vs right, cold vs hot, male vs female) because the methods of Leibniz and Descartes led data I/O down the path of absolute objective logic (resulting in today’s AI) which is at odds with our subjective selves. https://uploads.disquscdn.c

      1. ShanaC

        Can I see it. I know a few people who would be interested in that

    2. LaVonne Reimer

      Sometimes initiatives that look like cop-outs turn into clever flanking maneuvers. I understand your reasons why this approach might be sub-optimal but going up against adtech generally is audacious and maybe foolhardy. I forwarded this post to my good friend and colleague Doc Searls. Doc has been valiantly leading the charge for Project VRM, a Berkman Center effort to tame the adtech beast, especially the way it tracks us across the web (customers managing vendors instead of the opposite, aka CRM). Sleeping Giants is an opening. If it takes off it becomes flanking maneuver. It along with Doc’s work and its progeny (from open protocols to new startups) might flip the table here in a meaningful way. That would be good even if some day in hindsight we say “well that blacklisting thing was pretty messy.”

      1. William Mougayar

        Interesting. Thank you LaVonne.

      2. awaldstein

        How does project VRM do this?We all know Doc from reputation and I remember this project but don’t see how it attacks the same problem.Interested.

        1. LaVonne Reimer

          I think I have him writing on this now which will be better than what I could say. But, two thoughts came to mind. You have consumers opting out on the tracking side. Now we have brands opting out on the outreach side. That’s destabilization of an industry. It follows (in my fevered imagination) that destabilization along that value chain might lead to new alignment. That new alignment ends up meeting the VRM objective of giving consumers more autonomy. I.e., brands might start seeing consumers as their partners in protecting the brand while consumers experience this as asserting their intentions.

          1. cavepainting

            Both Doc and La Vonne are great champions of this cause and they do awesome work. Thank you !The question really goes back to if the parts of ad-tech outside of a) search, and b) brand advertising sold directly by publishers are delivering a positive ROI to brands. If not, can there be a better alternative to helping buyers find sellers in a way that is more respectful of the buyer’s time, interests, personal data and privacy ? Project VRM does provide a framework and set of tools that are forward looking and visionary.

          2. awaldstein

            I’m not smart enough to follow this I fear as sure-destabilization as a touchpoint to alignment is how the world works. How this relates to VRM as a solution, i’m stumped.

          3. LaVonne Reimer

            I’m into VRM for the spirit of it, flipping the model, taking out asymmetries, etc. Hence a surface understanding of the literal workings of adtech. But I do get the consumer-publisher-brand roles. The question we always ask is can consumers launch a revolution on their own? Ad blocking is interesting but what needs to happen on a systems level to flip the model make take more. Like one of the two big players might need to come under pressure or get all up in arms of some force that causes them to align with the consumer. I have always thought challenges publishers face on revenues. Reading Fred’s primary post got me thinking that we are in a moment of time where alt publishers are causing a log of concern. Maybe it’s an alignment of brands and consumers. To generalize further, I’m drawn to technology that enables grass roots revolutions but sometimes you need a change in the market that disrupts the way a class of big players sees the world and then that makes things happen. Admittedly these dots do not connect up all neat and tidy!

      3. ShanaC

        ironically this method was pioneered by gamer gate against otaku.You should also tell doc searls that

    3. cavepainting

      Yes, but brands do need more awareness on how ad-tech works and the ad-tech companies have a responsibility to be more transparent and provide black and white lists for advertisers that each can choose in accordance with what they want their brand to be associated with.I bet an advertiser would never agree to put a 30 second spot on a pornographic TV channel or a racist magazine, so why do they want to allow it on the internet ?

      1. Sprugman

        My company (Integral Ad Science provides this service to all parts of the ecosystem

        1. ShanaC

          By just listening?

    4. Gautam Mishra

      Blacklisting <> banning. This is just a feedback loop for a brand that might be listening to the social media channel but not the programmatic channel. Up to the brand to decide whether to act on the new information provided through the increased transparency. I think what you’re describing is a situation in which publishers become invisible based on the subjective judgment of individuals – that’s closer to what happens when FB or GOOG change their algorithms than to what Sleeping Giants is doing. Particularly if FB or GOOG also now heed the calls for them to censor the news.

    5. ShanaC

      It’s not blacklisting as much as notifying. Brands really care about brand safety and are freaked if they aren’t informed and protected from things that damage thier brand in automated bidding.If they weren’t having meeting about brietbart before the campaign, I’d be shocked.

  7. Jake Baker

    I think it is worth mentioning that the majority (if not totality?) of blacklisted site tweets so far are only about Breitbart. Without making any comment about the target, I would just note that reading the tweets makes it reasonably clear that the intent of the account is initially and specifically targeted at Breitbart.

    1. Tom Hughes

      Breitbart is the site everyone knows about because of the association with the Trump campaign, now the Trump administration-to-be, and secondarily because of some of the nonsense peddled there; but I would welcome a pointer to other hate sites and I’d flag them up to advertisers whose products or services I value.

  8. Vitor Conceicao

    I think that the ad networks should offer a whitelist option as well, it is easier to decide where you want to place your ad than to try to blacklist every low quality website.It would also be good for media companies, they could use their sales teams to convince agencies to whitelist them and it would end up raising rates for premium ad space from branding while letting pure performance players to spread their ads on the lower priced, higher ROI of non premium sites.

    1. Matt Zagaja

      At that point you might as well just direct sell the ads.

      1. Vitor Conceicao

        You can, of course, but there are a lot of advantages for the agencies to deal with one single ad network for all their needs.

      2. ShanaC

        Nah. More expensive with unclear payoff.Once you hit brand safe and colloquially similar topically, with a targeted audience, why pay for super premium inventory if the doesn’t bring extra money in the door.And Isay this having worked in audience development. The extra effort is probably not worth it

  9. Thierry Ascarez

    I think that publishers should also be able to blacklist brands.

  10. leigh

    This is a cautionary tale. I don’t know if you seen what is going on with Kelloggs right now, but it’s worth a read (and i won’t link to any of the sites that I don’t like and instead, link to the Guardian 🙂

    1. William Mougayar

      yup. I wonder who wins more here- Kellogg or Breitbart. Or they both lose?i would rather fight something bad directly, instead of indirectly.

      1. Tom Hughes

        We should fight bad things any way we can — directly and indirectly. But in this case, pressing advertisers to disassociate themselves from sites that reflect badly on their brand — sites that can stay in business from that association — feels pretty “direct.” The advertiser can come out ahead here if they get better alignment among themselves, their customers, and the media that that customers trust.

        1. PhilipSugar

          Again this is purely business not political I really mean this, this is just a great lesson on why people like us are not reflective of the population. It’s a business lesson. I had a great Marketing professor at Wharton that hammered this home.”The advertiser can come out ahead here if they get better alignment among themselves, their customers, and the media that that customers trust.”Who do you think buys Kellogg’s cereal???Who are their customers???How much do you buy???Walmart sells 21% of all their products:…I know this to be correct: About $3BWho does NPR say swung the election??? Walmart Mom’s:…How much cereal do you think they sell at Whole Foods???That’s not public but I know to be trivial. Just look at their aislesDo they need to “connect” with you??? Or Walmart Mom’s who buy cereal???If I was a shareholder I’d be super pissed.Sure if you are some other brand, go for it make a statement. But that was dumb.

      2. PhilipSugar

        See my comment below……it is Kellogg’s who is the huge loser

      3. leigh

        Kelloggs can use it to their advantage if they are smart. Redefine the conversation from conservative and liberal to the society they want to connect to (and let’s face it, that crosses both Democrats and Republicans)

    2. Jess Bachman

      Thanks for the heads up. I can only hope that Breitbard is 12 months away from only advertising for “buy gold!” and other scams their readers would fall for.

  11. Matt Zagaja

    When I did programmatic banner ad purchasing for some political campaigns the headache and outrage it caused was a bit absurd. The vendor I worked with was able to blacklist by certain categories (i.e. porn) but not all sites were necessarily included. They had to be in the URL blacklist. The most contentious was definitely advertising related to firearm related websites. A candidate I worked with is pro-gun control and the gun people were up in arms when they saw his ads on some of the websites they went to. Both upset with the candidate for advertising there and also the website for accepting the ads. Fortunately the candidate understood how things worked and we were generally ok with this since those people were never going to vote for us anyways I did not really care if they had strong feelings about the ads. However we did add sites to the blacklist as we got the feedback to save a few pennies.Overall the issue, in my mind, is that how these display ads are used differ from consumer understanding and expectations. It’d be great if the ad-tech folks who are flush with money would work on educating the public more. I think there also could be some more work put into improving the existing blacklists.

  12. Emil Sotirov

    I wonder if a mechanism I proposed for “opinion-based” advertising could help:

  13. howardlindzon

    the opposite problem is just as bad….ad networks litter good sites with shitty ads…the whole industry is broken

    1. Richard

      It’s beyond just as bad

    2. William Mougayar


  14. Salt Shaker

    Programmatic has lead to the commodization of adv. It’s all about impressions and cpms w/ increasingly less importance placed on qualitative issues, such as editorial compatibility. The ad community has no one to blame but themselves for the growth of ad blocking tech, plus when sites like Breitbart suggest it’s heresy for an advertiser to discontinue adv on its site’s due to inconsistencies w/ the company’s core values, you got to question who is running the asylum. Adv need to modify the buying process and elevate qualitative criteria to address inefficiencies in targeting and editorial compatibility.

  15. Ivan Cogliati

    “Brands can blacklist publishers they don’t want to do business with”. Yes, and on top of this they need to exclude their advertising campaign from running on ‘blind ad inventory’ (i.e. ad slots sold without telling the URL) which is a relevant part of the entire display advertising and programmatic ecosystem.

  16. Ana Milicevic

    There’s a very simple way brands can make sure their ads don’t end up on questionable sites: by paying for quality (whether it’s through direct relationships w/ publishers or by participating in more expensive but also more controlled programmatic environments). These techniques don’t require blacklists but do require more budget and planning. Instead, marketers seem to expect to get a Ferrari at the price of a beat-up Geo Metro and wonder why they often times end up at the junkyard.

    1. PhilipSugar

      This is a great comment.

    2. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Bang on target.

    3. ShanaC

      That, and more automation for verification of quality.Ad tech has tons of companies in this area, majority of them crappy.

  17. Andy Gysler

    There are actually companies out there that screen such websites and provide delivery chain information along with the screenshot when critical ad placements are seen. Check out, a Swiss start up, for example.

  18. ShanaC

    I’m surprised no one went after them for breaking ad tech terms of service with thier providers.If they are not in the system, they have to revert to manual sales and trafficking, which is too expensive for thier blood, especially if they also have to exit DART.Cc: @ana

  19. ShadrachSmith

    Case in point: Kellogg’s v BreitbartKellogg’s very publicly blacklisted Breitbart. Breitbart has 400k signatures on a petition to blacklist Kellogg’s. I would fire those executives who made that decision, for working against the business model of enlarging Kellogg’s customer base. Businesses want $ not ideological purity from their customers.If you are talking about economic war against political enemies, Trump hits back.