Cruise Line Ads Get Caught in a Coronavirus News Cycle

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’s 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 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 the 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.”

  • Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“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 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.”

Cruise Line Ads Get Caught in a Coronavirus News Cycle