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Something very strange is happening in Washington, D.C. these days. Media publications focused on Beltway politics and all the insider dealings of the nation’s capital are suddenly being flooded with online advertising dollars, and almost all of this money is coming from Silicon Valley. Publications such as Axios and Politico are hot properties these days, despite the fact that they don’t actively court the 18-to-34 demographic. They are not “cool” or “on-trend” or particularly “glamorous.” So why are the biggest tech companies in the nation flooding them with money?
Corporate social responsibility in the social media era
The answer, of course, is relatively easy to guess: Big Tech companies are under intense government scrutiny these days, and they are more than willing to spend $300,000 for a week-long ad campaign if it means they can win over some influencers, tastemasters, or big-time decision-makers in Washington. Most of the ads they are running these days fall under the category of “corporate social responsibility,” which is basically a polite way of saying these ads are purely intended to burnish a company’s image and reputation. Put another way, Google does not need to run ads in these publications telling you to use Gmail or to use Google Search. You already do that. It is running these ads to attract the attention of regulators and politicians.
Perhaps the closest analogy to what’s happening today with Big Tech is what Big Oil has been doing for years. Tired of hearing about how they are destroying the environment or contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas companies have been running ads touting all the ways they are helping to finance the next generation of clean energy. The ads typically highlight all of their green policies, and underline the fact that they have really embraced global climate change as a major issue.
In the case of the Big Tech companies, they have been facing mounting criticism on a variety of different fronts. For example, Meta has faced tremendous scrutiny and criticism over how it violates consumer privacy by selling your personal data in a staggering number of different ways. Companies like Alphabet (parent company of Google) and Amazon have also faced their fair share of criticism. So why not run a few “feel good” ads in Washington, D.C. media publications and let everyone know that they really have changed for the better?
A mini-boom in political content
For the media publications receiving all these ad dollars, of course, this has been a remarkable source of new funding. Thanks to all the advertising dollars it has pulled in from Meta, for example, Axios recently sold to Cox Enterprises for $500 million. Other politically-themed publications are seemingly popping up overnight, all clamoring for these ad dollars. If you’re being cynical, these new media publications seem like they have been started with a single purpose in mind: attract as many advertising dollars as possible, get a huge valuation from bankers, and then get sold to the highest bidder for a huge payoff later down the road.
As long as Big Tech is in the target crosshairs of Washington, DC regulators and lawmakers, it’s easy to see this trend continuing. Running ads in media publications is cheaper and easier than mounting big corporate lobbying operations in the nation’s capital. So the next time you’re reading content from Axios or Politico, and you see a message along the lines of “this newsletter brought to you by Meta,” you’ll know why.