Me Too Is Changing Even the Smarmiest Advertisers

In 2016, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation sent a letter to a fast-growing content marketing network called Revcontent. The nonprofit watchdog was concerned about the way some of Revcontent’s advertisers portrayed women. The network regularly ran ads for mail-order bride services, for example, or ones that featured close-ups of women’s breasts. “Revcontent was the fastest growing of the content advertising networks,” says Haley Halverson, vice president of advocacy and outreach at NCOSE. “so we thought it would be a good place to start.”

For eighteen months, Halverson got no response.

Then last fall, Revcontent’s founder and CEO John Lemp reached out for help reducing the racy ads. The times had changed, even for a web advertising in Florida. He credits the birth of his second daughter for his sudden desire to strip the racy ads from his network. He references the #MeToo movement as the reason for the startup’s expeditious wokeness. And sure those things count, but there’s an immediate business reason for Revcontent to position itself as clean well-lit place for web advertisers: as premium advertisers grow increasingly skittish about the material that surfaces adjacent to their brands on the web, choosing to lay off the cleavage shots is a marketing opportunity. So Lemp invited Halverson to visit the company’s Sarasota headquarters, learn how his business works, and help Revcontent figure out which ads exploit and degrade women.

Content advertising networks are among the web’s bottom feeders. It’s hard to get a sense of who the largest players are among these companies because the niche is so tiny not many services keep track, but there are at least a couple dozen. The most well-known of these networks are Outbrain and Taboola, but Revcontent has grown quickly. Polar, which is a content marketing platform for publishers, predicts this will be a $3.6 billion market by 2020. These companies serve up sponsored ads on the pages of publishers like Fast Company or TIME (or WIRED, which has an agreement with Outbrain) under a banner that identifies them as native advertising.

Nearly everything about this kind of content marketing is meant to trick a reader. It’s designed to look like actual stories, and often have salacious headlines like “A Teen Sent a Photo of Herself to the Wrong Number” and “Tom Selleck Makes Brave Statement About his Personal Life.” Sometimes the advertisers are other publishers that hope to recirculate their pieces in order to get more page views. Sometimes they’re advertisers who’ve purposefully designed ads that look and feel like editorial stories about their products. (Surely everyone has had the experience of clicking on that headline about Meghan Markle’s acne, only to discover it links to a skincare ad.) The networks usually share revenue with the publishers that host their ads.

Not Too Salacious

In recent years, as the advertising industry has rejiggered its strategy to compete with Facebook and Google, publishers have increasingly turned to content advertising networks as a new source of revenue. But in a crowded advertising space, these networks are fighting for scraps of attention and desperation often causes them to turn to questionable tactics. I stumbled across a Revcontent module on InfoWars, for example, that included the headlines “Warning from God Discovered in Human DNA” and “Malia Obama was Spotted in her Brand New Car and it’s Disgusting!”

Therein lies the tension: in their attempt to get you to click, content advertising networks are incentivized to embrace the most outrageous, attention-getting aspects of the content floating around the web. In late 2016, these companies came under fire for fueling fake news. Even as Google and Facebook said they were taking steps to remove propaganda from their sites, purveyors of misinformation with names like NationalReport.net and TheRightists.com were partnering with these networks to recirculate their content. The networks tightened their guidelines for who qualified as a publishing partner, and they stepped up their efforts to screen their advertisers. Even so, the widgets containing their ads still slip through. After the Parkland, Florida shooting in February, for example, the website Infowars was thrust into the spotlight when founder Alex Jones published a video saying the student gun activists were actors. Both Taboola and Revcontent were showing ads on Infowars, according to Digiday. Taboola pulled its advertising, but as of April 2, Revcontent continues to partner with Infowars. The company says it wants to work with independent partners to help determine what content should be removed.

Content advertising networks are incentivized to embrace the most outrageous, attention-getting aspects of the content floating around the web

Facing increased scrutiny, content marketing networks must deal with a similar set of conundrums as larger platforms, like Facebook and Google: namely, how to moderate what publishers they work with and what ads get shown on their content modules. Which publishers are spreading misleading information, and which are simply embracing extreme and unpopular points of view? It’s a tricky difference to negotiate at scale. “Sometimes what seems appropriate to some, seems very wrong to others,” wrote Taboola CEO Adam Singolda in a 2016 blog post addressing fake news. “This can be a ‘grey’ area.”

That may be so, but premium advertisers are also becoming more skittish about placing their ads alongside inappropriate content of all sorts. More than a third of them are concerned their ads will land next to hate speech, according to recent research by Digiday and GumGum, and 17 percent are concerned their ads will land next to pornography. And now that the industry has started to tackle fake news, it’s negotiating grayer areas—like policing ads that portray women inappropriately. On March 28, Singolda published a blog post entitled “1000 Ways We Are Cleaning Up the Internet” in which he said the company had removed 1000 ads it deemed racy, saying it “will represent a few million dollars of lost revenue in 2018, but it’s without a doubt, worth it.” Singolda said Taboola employs 30 people to review content, and plans to add another 15 this year. He says the company is also adding an option for readers to flag content they deem racy. (Like Lemp, Singolda credits recent fatherhood for his embrace of this issue.)

The problem with this approach is that the definition of racy material is far more subjective than that of pornography. Google the word, and the first definition that pops up reads: “lively, entertaining, and typically mildly titillating sexually.” In an environment where sex sells (at least as much as fake conspiracy theories, if not more), it’s a sizable challenge to figure out what constitutes appropriate above-board imagery, without exploiting its subjects.

More than a third of premium advertisers are concerned their ads will land next to hate speech

This is a question Lemp didn’t feel qualified to answer last fall when he enlisted the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) to help. Halverson’s organization has been working to strip businesses of pornography since 1962, and it has a particularly high bar for what passes as appropriate. Its victories include getting Walmart to remove Cosmo from its checkout aisles and getting large hotel chains like Hyatt and Hilton to remove on-demand pornography from guest rooms.

After meeting with Revcontent’s compliance team to learn how its process for vetting ads worked, Halverson made some immediate suggestions. The network relies on technology to scan its images, and it also has human reviewers that screen for problems. She suggested Revcontent remove all the mail-order-bride advertisers from its network immediately. “That’s a hair away from a prostitution transaction,” she says. She also encouraged the company to look more closely at the relationship between an image and its headline. There was an ad, for example, which featured First Lady Melania Trump. “It said ‘these 35 photos will have you wondering if she’s First Lady material,’ and was cropped so you’d have only her bare shoulders and breasts,” says Halverson. This is the kind of thing she says the site shouldn’t publish.

In March, satisfied that Revcontent had undertaken adequate efforts to remove all sexually explicit content, the watchdog provided its endorsement to the company. Halverson says she plans to send letters to Taboola and Outbrain on behalf of NCOSE shortly, and hopes to have a similar impact.

But while Revcontent’s advertisements may be much improved, it doesn’t control the stories its publishing partners produce. Even as I discussed the company’s work with Charlie Terenzio, who recently started as a brand manager at Revcontent, an image cropped up of a woman in a low-cut tank top and jean shorts, legs open suggestively. How’d that get through, I asked him? He explained the module I saw was part of a different technology product publishers used to recirculate their own content. In other words, Revcontent can only police its advertisers. If publishers choose to rely on risqué photos of women, it’s on them.

Correction at 10:30 a.m. on 4/3/2018: An earlier version of this story misspelled the Revcontent CEO's name. It is John Lemp.

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