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A new study aims to convince advertisers that the news is brand-safe

megaphones stacked on top of each other to mimic a shield wall, with cursor-tipped spears stuck in them.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

Advertisers have long worried about whether placing ads alongside polarizing news topics could be unsafe for their brands. But a new report could ease those concerns.

The Future of News: News Advertising Study, published on Wednesday by global marketing network Stagwell, concluded in part that it’s safe for brands to advertise adjacent to quality news content, regardless of the topic, and that ads next to controversial topics performed as effectively as those within “positive” news environments like sports and entertainment.

“Brands think there is less downside in those positive environments — but the opposite is true, too. There is less upside,” Stagwell CEO Mark Penn wrote in a recent op-ed for The Current.

“Sports and entertainment are already darlings for brand advertising. By contrast, news has been actively demonetized and there’s an extensive prejudice against it. The opportunity is sitting here for brands that want to reach a new audience and do so in a more efficient way.”

The study tested 10 real ads from 10 different brands across various news publishers and topics, and polled nearly 50,000 U.S. adults on brand reputational metrics for those ads, things like purchase intent, favorability and trustworthiness.

Brand safety in relation to the news was a major topic as recently as at the IAB NewFronts last month, where some major publishers made the case for why hard news shouldn’t be a concern for brands and that journalism needs advertising support.

“With misinformation spreading faster and more easily than ever before, the need for brands to support quality, trusted journalism should be an imperative,” Tim Wastney, SVP of sales, marketing and brand partnerships at BBC Studios, said during the NewFronts.

The report ‘debunks’ some brand assumptions

Timed to the release of the report, Stagwell hosted its first Future of News Summit on Wednesday, featuring journalists as well as leaders from brands and the advertising industry, to discuss the importance of journalism and how brands can support the Fourth Estate.

“From a consumption standpoint, news seems to be doing really well,” said Will Doherty, VP of inventory development at The Trade Desk, during a panel. “What we haven’t seen is monetization match the consumer demand.”

“A lot of the work that we’re doing today is to reestablish the value exchange that news has in every media plan,” he said.

He later elaborated that the most “evergreen source” of premium content on the open internet is journalism: “We believed that if we could put that front and center, if we could make that obvious and impossible to ignore, then the investment would follow.”

Shenan Reed, global chief media officer at General Motors, said that the data “debunks” some assumptions advertisers may have had about the news business and that some have “underestimated the intelligence of the American consumer.”

Tara Carraro, chief communications officer at U.S. Steel, said that the company recently ran a reputation benchmark study, and responses were up across the board. She credited that to partnerships across the news ecosystem, particularly newsletters.

“Newsletters have the contextualization that gets you to an audience that is very interested in the specific topic that you’re focused on,” she said.

News readers are under-tapped

Stagwell’s report comes ahead of a likely contentious U.S. presidential election, which could dissuade some brands from advertising with news publishers. The report could help ease these potential concerns, though.

For instance, the average purchase intent among consumers for ads that appeared adjacent to news on Trump and Biden was 62% and 61%, respectively; that’s in line with entertainment (62%) and sports (64%) news.

Demographically, the study found no brand safety issues among Democrat and Independent respondents. There was, however, some impact with Republicans, who were less favorable toward ads placed next to stories about Biden compared to ads placed next to other topics.

Further, Stagwell’s report found no brand safety issues among other key demographics. For Gen Z, for instance, ads with a story about Trump performed similarly to those with a story about the Oscars, according to the report.

The reputational brand metric average among Gen Z respondents for ads placed alongside topics like crime and inflation were 70.1% and 70.3%, respectively — more than that of those adjacent to business stories (69.3%) and entertainment topics (69.5%).

For people who follow the news closely, ads placed next to a story on gun violence outperformed those next to one on the Oscars across all the reputational metrics.

“News readers are a critical yet under-tapped marketing audience. Twenty-five percent of Americans are news junkies who follow the news very closely, according to HarrisX polling,” Penn, the Stagwell CEO, wrote in his op-ed.

“They tend to be older and more affluent, and importantly for brands, they tend to have more purchasing power.”

This is just a snapshot of what the report entails, but it provides plenty of insight into how a brand’s reputation could remain intact if they advertise with news publishers.

“Stagwell’s new research demonstrates that partners can confidently and safely place advertisements alongside news coverage,” Maggie Milnamow, chief revenue officer at Business Insider and senior vice president of Axel Springer, tells The Current. “In fact, it shows that it’s a smart investment with clear positive returns.”

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk Inc.