France’s President Emmanuel Macron spoke to the nation last night encouraging a unified response to the coronavirus menace as it becomes a pandemic of enormous proportions. The situation is changing so rapidly that the only certainty is uncertainty. No one knows what is in store for us, but everyone is searching desperately for information. What are the symptoms? What places are safe? What are other governments doing? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? How much should I worry? How much toilet paper do I need to buy?

Coronavirus has firmly displaced Trump from the top headlines across the western world and it is the primary topic that people are currently searching for to find content. And where there are eyeballs, there should be advertisers.

Except they are not there. “Covid-19” and “Coronavirus” are two words that have started to appear on all exclusion lists that digital advertisers use in order to prevent their ads from appearing next to content that could hurt their brand image. Pandemics are not good for business as the world is learning, and so unless you are cough medicine it’s not a good idea to have your ad next to content about death counts and social distancing.

YouTube has a particular problem because so many views are being racked up on videos that talk about coronavirus, yet YouTube can’t put ads before that content. Therefore they cannot monetize the service that they are providing to publishers and individuals. Then there are all of the videos of people parading as experts but who know nothing about anything scientific that are spreading contradicting viewpoints. Those videos are also racking up views as people search for content that conforms to their worldview in order to feel comforted.

YouTube has just decided to start running ads before coronavirus content as long as the content comes from established news sources. This is one take of how to create an approach to monetizing digital content about coronavirus. I’m not sure how those brands will feel about having those positions but YouTube at least isn’t shared screen like display advertising is where you could see a Chaumet bracelet next to a photo of a line of body bags in Wuhan.

Even The New York Times, one of the most read publications in the world with a robust ad sales team, is not running branded ads next to coronavirus content. They are still using the space, but to promote their own initatives:

monetizing coronavirus content

The effects of this shift in attention go beyond just avoiding coronavirus content. As publishers dedicate increasing amounts of resources to cover every angle of the story, there is a decreasing amount of other content. This means reduced inventory to deliver partner ads. Therein lies the paradox: higher coverage of the pandemic means higher amounts of traffic, but higher amounts of coverage mean less ad revenue.

Brands should be smarter too about how they use exclusion lists. It’s easy to add the word “coronavirus” to the list and then close your laptop and say that your job is done. But that means ignoring the fact that there are a lot of positive topics being discussed about coronavirus. Heroic health service professionals who are managing to save countless lives. The researchers working around the clock on developing more effective treatments and ultimately a vaccine to protect the world. The stories of people who have recovered from the virus and who are now back to living their lives normally (or whatever passes as normal during the pandemic). While a highly-infectious, killer virus is much less brand safe in general than say a municipal election result, not all angles are bad. Some content is brand safe even if it uses one of the two new C words.

And in order to encourage publishers to continue to devote resources to covering the biggest story of the century, they need to find ways to finance their teams. In certain ways, brands have an obligation to support publishers during this exceptional time. So while no brand manager will take a risk on associating their content with coronavirus, maybe there are other workarounds that could be put in place so that ads hit eyeballs without compromising brand safety.

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