The CNN show “Erin Burnett OutFront” spent much of its time on Friday focused, like many other news programs, on the coronavirus outbreak and the thousands of people isolated on the Grand Princess cruise ship near California.
During the commercial break, one spot stood out: an upbeat ad for Norwegian Cruise Line, a competitor.
It was one of many awkward ad placements as companies try to reach skittish customers while protecting their brands from becoming collateral damage in the growing coronavirus outbreak.
Norwegian, which declined to comment, has paid nearly $10 million for digital ads so far this year on Facebook, Wayfair, Expedia and other sites, compared with $2.4 million at the same time last year. Competitors like Carnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Viking Cruises have also increased their spending on advertising, according to the advertising analytics platform Pathmatics.
In the past two weeks, nearly $6 million in television ads from cruise companies have appeared during NBC’s Super Tuesday coverage, CBS’s debate programming and shows like “The Voice” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” according to the measurement company iSpot.TV.
Many of the ads have ended up alongside unflattering reports about cruises, positioned next to stories about quarantines and government warnings. CNN is working with cruise lines like Norwegian and other travel companies to move commercials to future times. But other spots were placed in milliseconds through an automated bidding process, created to help companies better target consumers.
The coronavirus outbreak has tested the appeal of placing ads by machine. This weekend, several digital publications found their articles dotted with ads for face masks, which the surgeon general has urged the public to stop buying. Disneyland ads appeared on Twitter next to news alerts about neighboring Los Angeles County declaring a local health emergency. The delayed James Bond film “No Time to Die” was promoted near headlines about the coronavirus death toll.
“It used to be pretty easy — broadcasters had a few ad slots, they had a direct relationship with the advertisers and they knew which ones they needed to be hyper vigilant about,” said Mike Zaneis, a co-founder of the training organization Brand Safety Institute. “Now, the scale creates a huge challenge: There might be 10,000 stories a day about coronavirus, there may be 100 different advertisers serving ads, and they’re different based on who’s watching and what platform it’s on.”
Companies are nervous about being associated with news about the outbreak. OpenSlate, an analytics firm that helps advertisers assess online video content, said that nearly 500 out of 109,000 videos related to coronavirus on YouTube and Facebook promoted misinformation.
Many companies are blocking their ads from appearing next to sensitive terms linked to coronavirus, creating keyword blacklists similar to the ones used to avoid stories about airplane crashes, mass shootings and impeachment proceedings. “Coronavirus” was the second-most-blocked term online last month behind “Trump,” according to the technology company Integral Ad Science.
In an increasingly divisive environment, some companies regularly block thousands of keywords in an effort to sidestep backlash. But often, experts said, the caution leaves no room for gray areas and denies publishers much-needed advertising revenue. A cruise company might want to sidestep coronavirus content, but an automaker has less reason to keep its ads away from valuable consumers on reputable platforms.
“The use of the algorithm seems to be kind of a crutch,” said Ari Paparo, the chief executive of the ad tech start-up Beeswax, who recently pointed out valuable unfilled ad space on The New York Times’s website on Twitter.
The anxiety surrounding the outbreak is creating openings for shady marketers, said Joshua Lowcock, the chief digital and global brand safety officer for the marketing and media agency UM. Coronavirus is generating heavy news coverage, creating more space for ads. But as larger companies steer clear, the supply is being filled with bids from what he calls “profiteering opportunists.”
“Because there isn’t demand from legitimate advertisers, you’ve got unscrupulous advertisers stepping into that void,” he said.
As a result, dubious ads that normally cannot afford to land near high-quality content are squeezing into prime positions, taking advantage of the trust built up on those sites, Mr. Zaneis said.
“The slimy folks on the internet will always find the little cracks and crevices and ooze in there,” he said.
Facebook said on Friday that it planned to ban ads and commercial listings for medical face masks. Amazon, Google, Twitter and other tech companies said they were also trying to redirect users looking for coronavirus information to government health agencies and other authorities.
On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to seven companies, including a show run by the televangelist and convicted fraudster Jim Bakker, accused of marketing products like teas, essential oils and colloidal silver as protection against coronavirus. The F.T.C. also said that scammers were using websites, emails, texts and social media posts to promote bogus coronavirus products.
“There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” Joseph J. Simons, the chairman of the F.T.C., said in a statement. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims.”
As coronavirus continues to spread, companies will have to figure out whether to advertise, and where. Princess Cruises said in a statement that, after enhancing its health screening protocols and putting into place a more flexible cancellation policy, it intended to continue promoting cruises.
Publishers are girding for more uncomfortable ad placements.
“The platforms are attempting to respond,” Mr. Lowcock said. “But by and large, the industry’s ill-prepared to deal with this type of event.”