How the advertising industry is supporting Ukraine and fighting disinformation

At the end of February, Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine, causing outrage across the world. In a globalized world where large companies often wield equal or greater power than national governments, many eyes have been on how they are responding to the news. This is particularly true of Big Tech as Russia and the West battle for information management. The advertising industry has been vocal in its support for Ukraine and condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s actions. But it goes further than that. Digital advertising has become a small but important weapon in the disinformation war that is swirling around the physical war.

Agencies and advertisers demonstrate support for Ukraine

Both Ukraine and Russia are home to thousands of people working in the advertising industry. Since the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, international advertising businesses have been working to support their staff on the ground. Publicis and WPP, for example, have pledged to support their employees in Ukraine financially. WPP has also announced that it will cease trading in Russia. Dentsu is reviewing its client relationships in Russia, and IPG has cancelled all its upcoming events in the country. There will doubtless be more announcements and action in the coming weeks.

Major global advertisers have also announced that they are suspending operations in Russia – among them are Nestlé, PepsiCo, L’Oréal, Mars, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Coca Cola, Yum! Restaurants, Reckitt Benckiser, Mondelez, VW, Danone, Storck, Visa, Walt Disney, Lego, Renault, Heinz, Mastercard and Ikea. Between them, these companies make up around 50% of the Russian TV advertising market. The impact will be significant for local media owners and ad agencies.

The impact of sanctions

Like so many companies and individuals, the ad industry will feel the impact of the West’s economic sanctions on Russia. Unfavorable exchange rates, cash movement issues and travel restrictions will have an immediate impact. Sanctions against clients may well endanger client relationships. Russian subsidiaries of international organizations may well start to face hostility from security services in the longer term.

Big Tech versus disinformation

With their global reach and ability to spread information – or disinformation – Big Tech has certainly felt the pressure to act decisively in the wake of the Russian invasion. Google has stopped selling online advertising in Russia, in a ban that covers search, YouTube and external publishing partners. YouTube has also shut down hundreds of channels and thousands of videos that violate its disinformation policies. Twitter has announced similar measures, and has temporarily paused ads in Ukraine in order to avoid crowding out important public announcements. It is also labelling tweets that share links to Russian state-affiliated outlets and removing disinformation accounts targeting Ukrainians.

Meta has restricted the access of Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik to its platforms across the EU, and has taken down a disinformation network on both Facebook and Instagram after finding Russian news sites posing as independent outlets. A tool which has previously been deployed in Afghanistan will be made available to Ukrainians, allowing users to lock their Facebook profiles to users who are not their friends. Chinese-owned TikTok has suspended live-streaming in Russia in response to the country’s ‘fake news’ law that is aimed at silencing dissent and limiting information about the invasion of Ukraine.

It is right and important that Big Tech has acted decisively over the last few weeks. However, there is still more to be done. NewsGuard, a news trustworthiness monitor, has found that dozens of websites disseminating disinformation are still receiving ad revenue from Google and other advertising companies. This means that Western advertisers are unknowingly subsidizing Putin’s propaganda.

Brand safety fears

Marketing has become a ‘vehicle of protest’. Brands are taking to the airwaves, the internet and billboards to denounce the war and express support of Ukraine. Even logos have been changed to reflect the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. However, the conflict has also raised fears among marketers about their ads appearing alongside negative or tragic news – these fears are similar to those felt during the pandemic.

Many brands have blocked keywords such as ‘Ukraine’, ‘Russia’ and ‘war’. This is depriving publishers of ad revenue at a time when readership is up significantly; users are spending, on average, 43% more time reading articles about the war compared with other stories. At a time when the dissemination of accurate, unbiased information is so critical, it’s important that brands support publishers. The WFA has warned marketers not to become an ‘inadvertent combatant’ in the war by ensuring their ad dollars don’t support disinformation instead of accurate, trustworthy reporting.

Digital advertising: the new underground newspaper

The Putin regime is determined to ensure that the Russian population does not know the truth of what is happening in Ukraine. State broadcasters are very tightly controlled. Independent and international news outlets are banned; access to non-Russian social media platforms has been restricted. But digital advertisers are engaging in a type of guerrilla warfare against the Kremlin. They’re leveraging tracking pixels and pop-up ads to make ordinary Russians aware of what their leaders are doing in Ukraine. To give a few examples…

  • A German web agency has posted a web script that, when included in a web page with a Russian IP, pushes a pop-up ad to the person accessing the page telling them that their government is lying to them
  • A London digital marketing expert is crowdfunding targeted ads that push Russian readers to independent Russian-language news sources about the conflict. They’ve reached 2 million people so far; they’re also looking to hack into digital billboards on the Moscow Metro.
  • A campaign backed by the IAB in Ukraine has a large number of accounts each spending a small amount of money with Google to target audiences likely to include the mothers of Russian soldiers. At the request of the Russian state media regulator, Google has shut these accounts down – a sign, perhaps, of their effectiveness.

The advertising industry is, of course, far from the most important player in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. But the actions it is taking will make a difference. As the writer of the web script mentioned above said, ‘Where can I make even the slightest difference? It could be a drop in a huge bucket of water—but every drop counts in the end.’

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