Advertising-driven media: merchants of happiness

Digital advertising tools have simply and candidly exposed what was known in the industry long ago: advertising does not like the news because the news is often bad news. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).

On the internet, advertisers never know what dramatic headline will be placed next to their advertised brand. Therefore, ad money, when given a choice, would prefer not to deal with this content at all. Media buyers confirm that,

Brands don’t want to be near controversial issues or near any news. But the net of controversial issues has grown. The 24-hour news cycle means there’s always some kind of drama.[1]

Buyers call this the ‘fear of the screenshot’: the fear that people will capture and start to share pictures of a brand in an inappropriate context. “All it takes is one letter from one person saying you were here. People are tweeting at advertisers. It’s fear of the screenshot.”[2]

In 2018, a Digiday survey of 400 media buyers “found that 43 percent of respondents said they explicitly avoid advertising next to the news and half of those say they’re steering clear of news content more than they had before.” If buyers choose to remain on news sites, “they must understand that doing so comes with a risk.” [3]

One of the survey’s findings is particularly interesting. When asked if they “avoid advertising next to Trump related content,” 58% of marketers answered ‘yes’.[4]

Due to the advancement of ad-buying inventory, marketers obtained an opportunity to blacklist certain words in order to avoid unfavorable contexts for their ads to be placed in. As a result, “Ad buyers are also increasingly using keywords and sentiment analysis to create custom categories of content to avoid, with a focus on reducing their exposure to Trump.”[5] One of them said that, “Believe it or not, our president is often not brand-safe.”[6] Trump appeared to be not that universally good for media business.

In addition, more advertisers want to avoid controversial content at all. In June 2020, during the massive protests against racism and police brutality, a big advertiser,

…told a leading online news publisher not to run its ads in stories related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Articles mentioning police-brutality victims such as “Breonna Taylor” and “George Floyd” were off limits, as were those with the word “protests.”[7]

Basically, advertisers have banned news as ad carriers for their brand.

Digital advertising tools have simply and candidly exposed what was known in the industry long ago: advertising does not like the news because the news is often bad news. It is not a beneficial context for displaying advertisements to the audience.

New advertising tools have merely allowed allocative control of advertising money to turn into operational control – the direct demand to the platforms and publishers regarding what content should be used to accompany brands. This obviously shall not be news content.


The new inventory of advertising allows for the preselection of not only content but also the emotional conditions of news consumers in order to accommodate advertisers’ wishes.

Cable sports network ESPN has created an instrument that predicts viewers’ moods during digital broadcasting of sports events. “About 80% of people who register with the ESPN app, for example, select their favorite sports and teams in exchange for a more tailored experience,” reported Quartz. “ESPN pairs that information with what’s happening in the game to predict what fans are feeling and serve them ads that cater to the moment.” [8]

Travis Howe, ESPN’s senior vice president, said that, “Whether or not a sports fan is happy, sad, slightly anxious, or overjoyed, we have the ability to anticipate their emotion and deliver relevant ads to them that creates a personalized experience.”[9] It is easy to assume that it is always more preferable for advertisers to have their ads exposed to fans of the winning team. The feeling of unity in joy and happiness is the best context for an ad message to sneak in.

This makes the channel of ad delivery interested in consumer happiness, and, if possible, in creating this happiness. A media channel with such an ability is incentivized to pursue their users’ happiness for better advertising business.


The emotional personalization of ad delivery has become a trendy business tool in the media of general interest, too. In 2016, USA Today introduced a sort of emotional scoring of its content for better offers to advertisers. “The publisher is trying to show a link between the emotions a story is likely to evoke and ad performance,” reported Digiday.[10] USA Today started “categorizing its content by topic and tone”. A certain score calculated on that basis would presumably give advertisers a better sense of where to place their ads.

In 2018, the New York Times‘s Advertising & Marketing division launched nytDEMO, an AI-driven product that aims to learn readers’ demography and reactions for better engagement and ad targeting. One of the projects, called Project Feels, employed machine learning to identify “the most meaningful associations between content, keywords, and emotion using deep learning.” The AI-driven model was reportedly able to predict “emotional response to any content.” Based on this knowledge, “perspective targeting” would be offered as a new ad product. “Perspective targeting allows advertisers to target their media against content predicted to evoke reader sentiments like self-confidence or adventurousness,” reported the New York Times press-release.[11]

Similar tools were worked on in El Pais. Pedro Ventura, director of technology on data and monetization at Prisa Media, said:

News can’t be happy all the time; that’s the reality. <…> We’re general news, so like the Guardian or Le Figaro, we cover a broad spectrum, and, of course, much of that is terrorist-related news or the Catalonia conflicts. Some advertisers just don’t want to be near that.[12]

To accommodate advertisers, the publisher of El Pais has defined a set of 32 audience emotions and created “happiness” segments, among others, in order “to put advertisers at ease”. Newspapers would charge a higher fee for advertisers who want this option on top of regular targeting.[13]


It is hard to overestimate the invisible harm that will be done to journalism by such tools. With mood-based targeting, the prioritization of content will gradually be outsourced to advertisers. Advertisers want users to be happy when seeing the brand. News rarely provides happiness.

The selling of emotions to advertisers inevitably leads to a temptation to induce only those emotions that suit advertising, with happiness being at the top. The ad-based media are merchants of happiness, now with the tools of precise emotional measurement.

The selling of emotions and the ability to induce emotions in order to accommodate the payer represent the ultimate degree of advertising’s impact on news production. Those media relying on ad revenue are eventually incentivized to induce happiness, which in turn incentivizes positive news and leads to the creation of a more positive picture of the world.


With the advent of the internet and social media, advertisers have moved to other, more efficient platforms and now dictate their will to them. Those advertising budgets that still remain in the news media do not dominate their business model anymore. Without sufficient funding support, the advertising demand for reality embellishment and manufacturing consent is no longer that influential in the media as it used to be.

Disturbing content in the media has become unchecked. Negativity bias takes the lead when news is paid by readers, not advertisers. And this is what is happening to the news media now.


Andrey Mir

An excerpt from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”


[1] Pathak, Shareen. (2019, February 22). “‘Fear of the screenshot’: Candid thoughts of ad buyers at the Digiday Media Buying Summit.” Digiday.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Weiss, Mark. (2018, December 3). “Digiday Research: 43 percent of media buyers say they avoid news content.” Digiday.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Benes, Ross. (2017, October 18). “‘Our president is often not brand-safe’: Why publishers struggle to monetize the Trump bump.” Digiday.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Haggin, Patience. (2020, July 12). “Target, MTV blocked ads from news mentioning ‘George Floyd’ and ‘Protests’.” The Wall Street Journal.

[8] Rodriguez, Ashley. (2018, May 3). “ESPN is selling ads based on sports fans’ wildly changing emotions.” Quartz.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Moses, Lucia. (2018, September 19). “Project Feels: How USA Today, ESPN and The New York Times are targeting ads to mood.” Digiday.

[11] The New York Times Company press release. (2018, February 15). “The New York Times Advertising & Marketing Solutions Group Introduces ‘nytDEMO’: A Cross-Functional Team Focused on Bringing Insights and Data Solutions to Brands.”–Marketing-Solutions-Group-Introduces-nytDEMO-A-Cross-Functional-Team-Focused-on-Bringing-Insights-and-Data-Solutions-to-Brands/default.aspx

[12] Davies, Jessica. (2019, April 29). “El Pais owner Prisa Media built a brand-safety tool to reassure news-wary advertisers.” Digiday.

[13] Ibid.

Categories: Corporate communication, Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Trumpism and Fake news

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9 replies


  1. Philanthropy funding of journalism: a noble corruption – Human as Media
  2. Philanthropy funding of journalism: noble corruption – Human as Media
  3. Postjournalism: Subjective modality in the guise of objective modality – Human as Media
  4. Rage on social media: signaling intensities instead of feelings – Human as Media
  5. The eternal failure of selling news – Human as Media
  6. How both old and new media polarise society for profit (or survival) – Human as Media
  7. The hamsterization of journalism and cannibalism of news teasers – Human as Media
  8. The news media: manufacturing anger, not consent. Herman-Chomsky’s Propaganda model revised – Human as Media
  9. Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers on Podcast “Worker & Parasite” – Human as Media

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