Brand Safety In Sensational Times

Brand Safety In Sensational Times

Last week, in the wake of the school shooting in Texas, one of my Fortune 50 clients suspended all media in the US until after the weekend news cycle. A big part of this decision was no doubt in deference to the tragedy, but also this helps protect the brand against negative associations. In the past year, brand safety has become a hot topic for marketers and brand leaders.

The wild fantasy of simple and scalable digital ad buying (especially programmatic) in which control comes largely from algorithms and not thoughtful placements, has demonstrated just how little control brands have once their media spreads out into digital ecosystems. Some brands have had rude awakenings, seeing their advertisements placed next to extremist and controversial content, because that’s often what gets a lot of views.

Here’s a few compelling statistics (from The Drum, Marketing Dive)

  • 72% of CMOs feel pressure from brand safety issues.
  • 77% of brand marketers believe brand safety impacts ROI
  • 91% of digital marketers are implementing or planning brand-safe strategies
  • 78% of UK consumers have expressed that they would think less of a brand if it allowed an ad to appear next to offensive or inappropriate content

Obviously, brands want to be where the action is. “But in our news-obsessed society,” says Forbes’ Parker Morse, “sometimes the content that’s popular and generating a lot of engagement is a news article about a terrorist attack or a think piece about the election. Given that this is what people are interested in reading about, are advertisers really going to stop running their content against news content? Perhaps not – but advertisers should be choosing the publisher and story that will best align with their organization’s needs.”

One way brands can do this is to develop relationships with publishers, so they’ll know exactly where their ads will be shown. This allows brands to avoid many of the issues other brands are facing. When a news report surfaced that ads were being shown on YouTube opposite content that promoted terrorism and anti-Semitism, there was a swift backlash. In the UK, Havas pulled all of their client’s ads from both Google and YouTube, and AT&T announced via spokesperson that it was “ [its] ads from Google’s non-search platforms” out of concern that the ads “may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate.”

Another way is to whitelist sites. J.P. Morgan famously cut the number of websites it used for ads from 400,000 a month, to just 5,000 pre-approved websites after seeing one of its ads on a website called Hillary 4 Prison. Back in 2017 after they enacted this new process, CMO Kristin Lemkau noted they saw little change in the cost of impressions or the visibility of ads.

In an interview with Digiday, Procter & Gamble’s Mark Pritchard says, “Digital tech changed the way consumers interacted with brands. That shift moved our ad dollars there. We had to work with the big players like Google and Facebook to create the ad ecosystem that exists today. And now we can buy straight from there. That’s where the power shift was. What I think we did as an industry level is what brand managers and brand people did, which is needing to put standards into how we purchased media and advertising so we could make the best decisions. The media transparency is where we stood up as an industry.”

The amount of money at has forced platforms to make changes. YouTube has raised the bar for what videos can take advertising, and announced that human reviewers would scrutinize every video in Google Preferred, their elite ads program accessible to top creators. Businesses and governments have been very vocal about fake news and have required stricter criteria for platforms distributing and sharing questionable content. Hopefully these moves (and others like them) will help brand managers protect the integrity of their brands.

In today’s sensational times, a brand’s content is equally as important as where the content is seen. Scaling ad placement and execution is not easy, but the risks when your brand accidentally appears alongside provocative and contentious are simply too great to take. Be careful with your brand.

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