ViacomCBS told Vice not to run ads in protest articles

(Image: ViacomCBS/Handout)

ViacomCBS directed Vice Media last month to stop running its advertisements in news articles related to the Black Lives Matter movement and other social protests, according to a report.

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal said the cable TV programmer directed Vice Media, the operator of Vice News and other websites, to stop running ads for the MTV program “Revenge Prank” in articles that contained the words “protests,” “racism,” “hate” and “policing.”

The company also prohibited MTV ads from appearing in news stories related to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two Black individuals who were killed by police officers, the Journal said.

National retailer Target issued a similar edict to Vice Media. Both companies told the Journal their decisions to block ads from those specific news stories stemmed from a desire to appear more-sensitive to the issues and that they didn’t want their advertisements to come across as companies profiting off tragedy.

“This is standard practice we use with our media agency to ensure that our ads don’t come across as tone-deaf or disrespectful,” a ViacomCBS spokesperson said.

But Vice and other publishers who spoke with the Journal said they felt they were being punished for covering important topics of national interest.

“It’s de-funding our journalism at a time when it’s imperative for us to be the front lines doing this kind of work,” Vice Media executive Paul Wallace told the Journal. “The most frustrating part of all of this is that the brands that are [blocking their ads] are standing on a pedestal saying that they support BLM.”

Wallace said stories related to the Black Lives Matter movement and other social issues were some of the most-popular articles published by Vice News and related websites in June. But the company struggled to find financial support for those stories because ad buyers were specifically avoiding those topics.

So-called “block lists” created by big-named advertisers aren’t unheard of in the media industry: Many ad buyers have long blocked their commercials from being associated with stories related to terrorism and mass murder. But this year, buyers significantly ramped up their use of block lists — first to avoid stories concerning COVID-19 and later including prohibitions on coverage of social issues.

One unnamed publisher who spoke with the Journal said the desire to appear sensitive was understandable, but advertiser concerns lately have been overblown.

“It’s not like people are reading about [President Donald] Trump and they see a Home Depot ad, and then they think, oh, I hate Trump, so now I hate Home Depot,” the unnamed publisher said.

The timing could not be worse: Media advertisement buying has been severely impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, with some analysts predicting the pandemic will hammer the commercial market worse than the 2008 recession.

In March, the Interactive Advertising Bureau said nearly one in four ad buyers had completely paused their spending for at least six months while half of the remaining buyers surveyed had adjusted their spending to account for the crisis.

Digital ad spending had been cut by one-third while traditional advertisements were down by nearly 40 percent, IAB said.