Brand Safety: Online Advertising’s Achilles Heel

In recent weeks, both consumers and advertisers have started paying increased attention to where ads end up online. It’s an issue that associations should consider, too, if they rely on programmatic advertising.

For years, online advertising seemed like something akin to the Wild West—an anything-goes environment that appeared more focused on automation than what ended up where.

(See the popularity of Taboola and Outbrain.)

Recently, however, we’ve seen a push against this phenomenon. Some of this, admittedly, has the tone of politics—an anonymous social media activist group, Sleeping Giants, is specifically responsible for more than 1,000 companies dropping their advertising from the conservative news website Breitbart—but a much larger part of it is that advertisers are starting to take more seriously the association between an ad and the page where that ad is located. Whether you agree with this specific tactic or not, it nonetheless has proved effective.

Interestingly enough, the outcry around brand safety picked up due to a membership program. The Guardian, the celebrated London-based newspaper, had been advertising its program through the Google-owned AdX ad exchange, but discovered that its ads were placed directly next to extremist materials located on YouTube. That led the company to block ad placements on YouTube entirely—something it acknowledged would cost the the newspaper potential revenue.

In a letter to the head of Google’s European operations, Guardian CEO David Pemsel called on the website to boost its transparency with advertisers around both its advertising products and where such ads are placed.

Brands choose those platforms to work hard for them to achieve all of their business and brand building objectives. But the most important of those priorities is ‘to do no harm.’

“Given the dominance of Google, DoubleClick and YouTube in the digital economy, many brands feel that it is essential to place advertising on your platform,” Pemsel wrote, according to a Guardian article. “It is therefore vital that Google, DoubleClick and YouTube uphold the highest standards in terms of openness, transparency, and measures to avoid advertising fraud and misplacement in the future. It is very clear that this is not the case at the moment.”

The newspaper’s critique quickly snowballed on Google, with other major advertisers—including mobile providers AT&T and Verizon and rental car giant Enterprise—following suit.

Last Friday, the Association of National Advertisers weighed in, noting that many of the group’s own members had stepped away from the website’s advertising platforms. The association’s CEO, Bob Liodice, called on Google to do more to consider “brand safety,” which he said was “of paramount importance to our members.”

“We join the ecosystem in calling upon all digital advertising platforms to take the necessary steps to guarantee the safety and reputations of our brands,” Liodice said in an emailed statement. “Brands choose those platforms to work hard for them to achieve all of their business and brand building objectives. But the most important of those priorities is ‘to do no harm.’”

A Challenging Problem

This ad placement problem is going to prove incredibly difficult to solve. Google’s entire ad business is built around this sort of algorithm-driven, hands-off approach to advertising—and now, more than a decade after finding success with this business, the company is finding that whole model is at risk.

(And Google does understand the whole sensitivity angle pretty well—just recently, it dropped a popular-but-controversial YouTuber, PewDiePie, from its premium advertising program after he crossed the line one too many times.)

In an interview with The New York Times, Undertone cofounder Eric Franchi noted that the sheer scale of the ad networks used means that it’s going to be become increasingly harder to keep brands away from dicey content.

“I distinctly remember doing presentations years and years ago, and there was some stat at the time that there were a million ad-supported websites and I thought that was mind-blowing,” Franchi told the newspaper. “Now fast-forward to 2017, and Google’s display network alone has two million sites. It’s a lot harder to maintain brand safety today than what it was because of the sheer number of sites coming into these exchanges every day.”

Part of the issue here, at times, is the medium: YouTube’s design makes an ad that directly precedes a questionable video seem like a direct sponsorship, even when it isn’t. Websites, to some degree, deal with this problem, though it’s less pronounced when there’s a stronger separation, as there is on a network like Facebook.

So What Should You Do?

If your organization relies on advertising to win over audiences, you may find the recent attention around this issue surprising—because this issue, to be honest, isn’t a new one. If you’ve been paying close attention, programmatic ads have always faced these issues. What’s new, really, is the attention the problem is getting.

There are options here, but not all of them are always desirable. You could, for example, put together a sizable blacklist of keywords you don’t want in the articles or videos that feature your ads. (Ten to one, it’ll be a far more exhaustive list than George Carlin’s list of words you can’t say on TV.) Or you could create a whitelist of websites where you’ll allow those ads—but on the downside, you could be missing out on potential audiences by blocking sites that could attract the very people you want to attract.

These solutions, in any case, require a lot of work, and aren’t fool-proof. They take time to be done correctly, time that you could be using for other things. Which means they cost money. (It can be done, though— this recent piece from Inside Higher Ed, explaining how Fordham University tackled its extremist-website problem, is informative.)

In a recent piece for the U.K. trade magazine Campaign, columnist and GroupM Chief Digital Officer Rob Norman suggested that the fresh attention this problem is getting could ultimately be good for the industry—because it’ll encourage vendors, already getting pressured to improve their transparency, to create better tools for brand safety.

“The only real good is that the power of the platforms will be balanced by increased pressure on them to be socially responsible and accountable,” Norman wrote. “Complex and inadequately deployed content detection, user protection and brand safety tools will get simpler, more effective and better distributed.”

Programmatic advertising is a hugely important tool in your marketing toolbox. But standards are important, because your association’s brand is everything.

Don’t be afraid to raise yours.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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