Brand Safety Shouldn’t Be Reactionary – Advertisers Need To Do Better

Allison Schiff, senior editor, AdExchanger

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by Allison Schiff, senior editor at AdExchanger. It’s part of a series of perspectives from AdExchanger’s editorial team.

While most people were glued to their TV screens watching the chaos unfold in Washington, DC, on Wednesday afternoon as rioters breached the Capitol Building, some advertisers were busy updating their keyword block lists or pulling their ads from news sites.

A source told Campaign US that GroupM updated negative keyword lists within an hour of the siege, and that by 5:30 p.m. – just over 60 minutes after President Trump posted a video telling his supporters, “We love you, you’re very special” – six Omnicom clients had already halted all ad placements running against news content across digital and on TV.

Other brands followed suit, including clients of Dentsu and Havas, by pausing their media and fearfully battening the brand safety hatches as they always seem to do the moment the news cycle veers in an unexpected or extreme direction.

No one is debating that brands need to protect their image and their reputation. There’s no lack of fraudulent, inappropriate and unsuitable content online that doesn’t deserve the support of ad dollars.

But when advertisers are so skittish about brand safety that their first thought is to immediately go dark? Well, do that enough times and eventually there won’t be a robust Fourth Estate to support.

Withholding spend from YouTube to try and make Google clean up its act is one thing. Yanking ad spend from independent news sites trying to cover world events is quite another.

This sort of knee jerk response isn’t new, though.

Some advertisers block news and political content as a matter of course, while others react to the news as it cycles. 2020 was full of high-profile examples of the latter. Many advertisers avoided content related to the pandemic as well as anything to do with the Black Lives Matters protests over the summer.

That’s a heck of a lot of worthy news content that deserves to be monetized.

But sometimes attempts at keyword blocking are just ham-fisted. When the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire in April 2019, for example, advertisers were on the case – and ended up also blocking college football-related content by mistake. When a terrorist bomb exploded at an Ariana Grande Concert in Manchester in 2017, the term “Ariana Grande” was one of the top 20 most-blocked keywords of the year, according to Integral Ad Science.

The question is whether advertisers have the wherewithal to stop being so reactionary – especially since some of their fear about ad adjacency might be misplaced.

An October report from IAB found that consumers are 45% more likely to visit a brand’s website if that brand advertises on their favorite news outlets and that advertising in the news can actually increase consumer trust by 6%.

It’s understandable why brands are nervous. Advertisers get dragged through the mud for every misstep, and the path of least resistance is to block first and ask questions later … or not at all, until the next catastrophic news cycle crops up.

There is an ongoing and inherent tension between how marketers define being an effective – or at least an efficient – steward of brand safety and using advertising to support journalism, which is something most advertisers say they want to do.

This tension will not be resolved until advertisers are able to think about brand safety as shades of gray rather than through the lens of a blocklist.

Some of that work has started with the more nuanced concept of brand suitability, by which marketers consider context and actively seek out appropriate content rather than employing a razed earth strategy to try and avoid inappropriate placements.

If marketers want a healthy press, they need to support it, warts and all.

Also, what the heck did Ariana Grande ever do to you?

Follow Allison Schiff (@OSchiffey) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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