As western social media sites tried to block misleading ads coming out of Russia this week, Rob Blackie was trying to sneak ads in.
Mr. Blackie, a British digital strategist, wanted Russians to see impartial news about the invasion in Ukraine. His solution to avoid Russia’s censors: digital ads, which he and a team of volunteers began buying with automated technology and slipping past government filters onto online platforms in Russia.
Bearing neutral headlines such as, “What is known about the situation in Ukraine at the moment,” the ads were viewed two million times as of midday Friday and directed viewers 42,000 times to independent news sources such as the BBC, Mr. Blackie said.
“The great thing about digital advertising is that it’s quite hard to stop it,” he said.
Pushback against the Russian assault has played out prominently in the form of economic sanctions, company exits and widespread moral outrage. But as President Vladimir V. Putin continues his advance into Ukraine, advertising has become another vehicle of protest: in commercials squeezed in the margins of news coverage, in subtle tweaks to brand names and marketing campaigns, in agencies leaving Russia and in attempts to counteract the misinformation splashed across online banners with more accurate messaging.
Marla Kaplowitz, the chief executive of 4A’s, an advertising trade group, said the industry has done far more to respond to Russia’s attack compared with past crises. Marketing organizations have galvanized around addressing misinformation, with a 100-person conference call on the situation on Thursday and another meeting on Friday, she said.
“We see the industry trying to figure out what to do, because people feel a bit helpless, like putting out a statement just doesn’t feel like enough right now,” she said. “The whole world is reacting in a different way, rallying around Ukraine — it’s not enough to just say something, you actually have to do something.”
Almost immediately after Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, brands began producing symbolic expressions of solidarity. E-sports teams, productivity apps, health care companies, crypto services, ad giants and other organizations changed their logos to reflect the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.
The Ad Council, a nonprofit known for its public service campaigns featuring Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog, began running a campaign online and on billboards on Thursday directing viewers to donate to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. The British price comparison website Compare the Market removed ads featuring its popular 13-year-old mascot, an animated meerkat portrayed as a Russian oligarch named Aleksandr Orlov.
Wargaming, an online game developer based in Cyprus, stripped its advertising of images of tanks and combat vehicles and focused instead on in-game narratives.
Ads also became a front in the information war, as efforts to share verified news and solicit help clashed with Russia’s push to spread falsehoods and censor independent reports.
Twitter temporarily paused ads in Ukraine and Russia so that the ads did not distract from public safety information. Facebook’s parent company Meta said it was blocking Russian state media from advertising or monetizing on its platform. Google suspended advertising from Russian state media on YouTube; Snap halted ad sales in Russia and its ally, Belarus.
On Friday, Russia blocked Facebook inside the country, as part of the Kremlin’s broadening campaign to tighten control of the internet and limit spaces for dissent about the war in Ukraine. The move could foreshadow further restrictions against other tech companies such as Google, which owns YouTube, and Twitter. Facebook said it would pause ad targeting capabilities in Russia and prevent advertisers in the country from running ads on the platform.
Before those restrictions, one digital ad agency tried to rally advertising professionals to participate in “the most important brief ever,” with the goal of stopping a potential world war. Through its Prevent WW3 project, ISD Group solicited marketing campaigns that would raise money for Ukrainian refugees, encourage peacekeepers to protect Ukraine, inform Russians about the war and persuade companies to leave Russia.
Examples so far have included small efforts such as posters and digital ads, but also complex initiatives such as one from a creative director in San Francisco who is trying to persuade American bars and restaurants to expand their menus with Molotov cocktails — drinks accompanied by stories about the Ukrainian bartenders who submitted recipes.
The ad agency DDB Germany was working on a broader campaign about press censorship called “Truth Wins” when its client, the nonprofit group Reporters Without Borders, asked it to quickly craft a response to Russian efforts to stanch information flow about Ukraine. The agency came up with a plan to collect censored articles about the war and mint them into the blockchain via Ethereum domain links, preventing them from being blocked by the Russian government.
But Madison Avenue was also skittish in some ways. Companies faced conflicting advice to pause marketing campaigns out of respect for Ukraine, but also to speak out in support of the country. Executives were pressured to pause their advertising campaigns and instead gift their marketing budgets to humanitarian aid organizations (though warnings circulated on social media about scammers pretending to collect donations for relief efforts).
The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global Economy
Wall-to-wall news coverage showing the smoking rubble of residential buildings and newborn infants in intensive care in a makeshift bomb shelter caused familiar fears to resurface for companies that had worried during the pandemic about how their advertising would be perceived alongside tragic news events.
Within a week of Russia’s first attack, several ads had faced criticism, including an Applebee’s ad that appeared amid a CNN broadcast about air raid sirens in Kyiv.
Kylie Jenner, the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star and beauty brand executive, faced accusations of being “tone deaf” when she posted an Instagram Story offering her “thoughts and prayers” to Ukrainians and followed it two hours later with a post promoting a lip shine product.
The Aggregator Show, an event in New Jersey geared to Amazon vendors, said it fired a worker who advertised the gathering by writing in a LinkedIn post that “while Russia is taking over Ukraine, we’re taking over the Amazon event industry.” The post ended with a taunt: “Whoever can’t handle it, take shelter.”
“This is not who we are or what we are about,” the company said in a statement about the post.
Afraid of stumbling into a similar scenario, some companies have begun blocking their ads from appearing next to news coverage about the crisis in Ukraine, brand safety specialists said. The precautions echo a rush in 2020 to avoid stories featuring words such as “coronavirus” and “pandemic,” although concerns about depriving publishers of critical advertising revenue has pushed many companies to evolve their blocking strategies.
“To put things into perspective, this is a real crisis situation that’s life or death for many people,” said Jason Lee, the senior vice president of digital and data strategy for Horizon Media. “What we’re doing in the advertising and media world is very important, but we also have to be mindful of this larger conflict occurring, and so it gets back to the question: Could a brand be part of the conversation, and should they?”
While advertising clients weighed their options, the agencies and industry organizations representing them offered support to their Ukrainian counterparts and shunned Russia. Accenture, which has a large marketing business, pulled out of Russia on Thursday. Organizers of Cannes Lions, the industry conference and competition scheduled for the summer in France, said on Friday that they would not accept submissions or delegations from Russia and would offer free passes to Ukrainian participants. Etsy, the online marketplace, said it was waiving advertising charges, along with other fees, for its sellers in Ukraine.
But the two countries have a relatively small presence in the Western advertising world. Mark Read, the chief executive of the ad giant WPP, said during a conference call with investors on Feb. 24 that while Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine was “obviously a great concern to us,” the countries’ “economic impact on our business is not necessarily that great.”
On Friday, WPP discontinued its operations in Russia, where it has nearly 1,400 employees but draws less than 1 percent of its annual revenue. In a statement, it said that having an ongoing presence in a country responsible for the “horrific attack” on Ukraine “would be inconsistent with our values as a company.”