With Donald Trump as president, advertising boycotts are all the rage. Brands like Uber, Under Armour and New Balance have prompted consumer outcry for appearing to pick political sides. 

And for several months now, activists have encouraged advertisers to blacklist Breitbart, which has run xenophobic, sexist and anti-Semitic articles. Its former chairman, Steve Bannon, has assumed a prominent role in the Trump administration. Kellogg’s pulled its advertising, to the ire of Breitbart. Other brands, including Novo Nordisk, Warby Parker and the San Diego Zoo, followed. Ad tech platform AppNexus cut ties.

But boycotts like these may be little more than symbolic, having practically zero impact bottom lines. The automation of media has created a byzantine advertising environment,which is engineered to have as deep of a pool of advertising as possible. That means that while a marketer could pick and choose sites, few do; that’s how the system is designed to work.

According to the operator of Sleeping Giantsone of the main activists driving the Breitbart boycotts, more than 1,300 brands have blacklisted the so-called “alt-right” publisher for perpetrating hate speech. That number may be eye-popping, but most industry insiders believe the boycotts will not have much impact on Breitbart’s ad revenue. And among those who believe boycotts could be effective, there is a belief that boycotts at the brand level alone will not drive change.

“[Brand protests] are not going to derail Breitbart,” said Yieldbot CEO Jonathan Mendez. “There are plenty of performance-based advertisers that don’t care about what the content is; they are just trying to get clicks and conversions.”

If advertising protests are to be effective, Mendez and others say, they will have to occur at the agency and ad exchange level.

Blacklists sound serious, but blacklists often fail in programmatic buying due to fraud and communication gaps between brand stewards and programmatic buyers. It’s also worth pointing out there there are a seemingly never-ending number of buyers looking for cheap scale on open exchanges. Breitbart claims it generated 300 million pageviews during the presidential election, so if CPMs are low, some advertisers will want to cash in regardless of political ties. As independent marketing consultant Matt Rosenberg noted, individual brand boycotts are “drops in a bucket.”

Scott Bender, head of publisher strategy at Prohaska Consulting, pointed out that the impact of boycotts is affected by how much programmatic versus direct sales Breitbart does. And even within programmatic, the impact of boycotts could be limited if Breitbart devotes a large chunk of its automated selling to private marketplace deals with brands that align with the far right. Breitbart did not return calls for this story.

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Zemanta CEO Todd Sawicki believes that the boycotts can drive major revenue declines. But he noted, “The tipping point is moving from brand blacklists to agency blacklists.” Agencies, after all, have the collective buying power to impact publishers.

There is anecdotal evidence that more agencies are boycotting Breitbart, and data from Pathmatics shows that major advertisers have dialed back their spend considerably. The top 100 brands in terms of ad spend made up about 20 percent of Breitbart’s programmatic revenue last February. But now those top brands make up less than 5 percent of Breitbart programmatic revenue, according to Pathmatics.

Source: Pathmatics

Although top brands are spending less on the publisher, Mendez doubts their price floors will change much as long as traffic stays constant. And it appears Breitbart users are loyal regardless of the political zeitgeist.

ComScore data shows that Breitbart traffic dropped off after the election, not uncommon among news-driven publishers. Year-over-year, traffic appears to be slightly up with 17.3 million unique visitors in January 2017, compared to 14.1 million visitors in January 2016, according to comScore. SimilarWeb data also shows that recent Breitbart traffic is up a bit from pre-election levels. An ad buyer speaking on the condition of anonymity said that Breitbart CPMs were around $1.20 in January, down from around $1.60 in August. But the buyer emphasized that these results be taken with a grain of salt because her sample sizes are very small due to the prevalent boycotts among clients.

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Rosenberg agreed with Sawicki that only agencies have enough buying power to place significant strain on the publisher. But Rosenberg believes agencies’ true power lies in their ability to lobby exchanges.

“There are so many advertisers using exchanges that as long as Breitbart is available on exchanges they will probably fill their ad slots,” he said in reference to Breitbart’s cheap scale, which is attractive to some advertisers. “It’s when the exchanges themselves face pressure and stop placing ads there that they will suffer. Activists who want to drive change should focus less on yelling at Kellogg’s and more at yelling at exchanges or yelling at agency holding companies to yell at exchanges.”

Pathmatics data indicates that AppNexus, The Trade Desk and Sovrn have virtually eliminated spend on Breitbart on their platforms, while Google AdX has remained the main programmatic channel for Breitbart. As vendors drop out, others take their place. In just the last month, programmatic platform Distroscale went from negligible activity on Breitbart to having almost half of Breitbart’s programmatic spend run through its channels, according to Pathmatics. Distroscale did not return requests for a comment.

Ken Van Every, senior business development manager at demand-side platform provider DataXu, pointed out that tech vendors can nudge buyers without measures as dramatic as blacklists. For example, DataXu tags Breitbart as being brand unsafe, which means that buyers who use the platform’s brand-safety filter will be steered clear from Breitbart by default. But buyers on DataXu can also decline to use the filter and pursue Breitbart inventory however they wish.

“We have things in place for people who care,” he said. “But we are not arbiters of free speech.”

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