USA Today publisher misrepresented ad placement to advertisers for nine months

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USA Today owner Gannett Co. admits it was at fault for presenting advertisers with false claims on its sites for nine months, which led to discrepancies in the placement of billions of ads.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ad industry researchers identified errors in Gannett’s system that led advertisers to believe they were buying ads on a Gannett site, often USA Today, but were buying in fact space on another more local point of sale.

In addition to USA Today, Gannett has news outlets in 46 US states and uses real-time digital auctions to sell advertising space on its sites.

Gannett executives familiar with the situation told the Journal that the error was added to its ad systems in May 2021 and was detected on March 4 during the implementation of new technology.

Flags of Gannett Co and its flagship newspaper, USA Today, fly outside their corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia, July 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

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The error involved mislabeled ad space, for example, a USA Today visitor being tagged as a visitor to one of Gannett’s local sites, which led to the ad being shown for a national audience only on a local market. Advertisers were also told that the ad would be placed in an article on a specific topic, but sometimes the topic ended up being completely different.

“In automated or ‘programmatic’ online advertising, ad space is sold within milliseconds of a user loading a webpage. The ad space on the page is auctioned off with important information for potential bidders, including details about the site, as well as keywords that describe content and certain user information,” writes The Journal.

“This ‘bid request’ data was inaccurate in Gannett’s auctions during the time period studied by the researchers, they said. The ad tech market is complex, with various intermediaries making available to ad space, run real-time auctions, and help advertisers place bids. Many of these players have safeguards in place to identify misleading inventory in ad auctions, but don’t seem to have grasped Gannett’s problem, have said the researchers,” he added.

St. Louis, Missouri.  A USA Today newspaper distributor.  (Photo by: Newscast/UIG via Getty Images)

St. Louis, Missouri. A USA Today newspaper distributor. (Photo by: Newscast/UIG via Getty Images)
(Getty Pictures)

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In a statement to the Journal, Gannett admitted to providing advertisers with the wrong information, but that the error was unintentional. He added, however, that advertisers were presented with certain information during the auction, including page URLs, which allowed them to see the identity of the website on which the ad was ultimately placed.

The Journal noted that many brands that advertise with Gannett have policies about what hot topics they want their advertising to appear with, generally seeking to avoid being associated with controversial content. Many ad auctions have violated these rules due to discrepancies.

The company is still determining whether it will issue refunds to its advertisers.