Could A Universal Rating System For Websites End Brand-Safety Woes?

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 Rich Kahn, co-founder and CEO at eZanga.

Brands have reason to fear for the safety of their reputations. From headline-generating slip-ups – like when major brand ads appeared alongside extremist content on YouTube – to the less dramatic snafus that happen daily – such as a brand appearing alongside a competitor’s content – the risks are real.

Brand safety means different things to different companies, which makes it complicated. Obviously, businesses are not OK advertising alongside violence, porn, hate speech and illegal drugs. Most don’t want to touch gambling, either. But what about everything else?

What I am picturing is a universal grading system, akin to how we rate movies, except way more granular. The system would rate individual web pages, not just sites as a whole, in near real time to keep up with content changes.

Developing an accurate system shouldn’t be a problem, as long as the industry can agree to criteria.

Audience Perceptions Versus Brand Preferences

Grading a site on a scale that reflects audience perception is one thing. Porn could be “MA,” “X,” “10,” “red,” “unsafe” or whatever we use to denote one end of the spectrum. Something obviously innocuous, such as a weather site, would be “G,” “1,” “green,” “safe,” etc.

Finalizing a system for everything in the middle seems doable, too. I am not sure how many layers we would need, but I can envision a spectrum that is nuanced enough to reflect online games, news sites or retailers, especially if that system is aimed at reflecting audience perception.

Things would get more complicated if we tailored the rating system to reflect brand needs. Olympics coverage seems safe, but let’s say the Olympics are sponsored by Coca-Cola, so Pepsi doesn’t want to touch any of that content. Does a sports news site’s grade change from “safe” to “risky” for Pepsi? More likely, content grades would have to be set in stone, and each brand would determine its comfort level with edgy content and use additional tools to enforce customized brand guidelines.

A rating system is in no way a cure-all, but it is a step toward standardizing a complicated issue, which should make the brand-safety challenge more manageable, at least for most advertisers.

You can’t make assumptions about brand safety. I once worked with a satellite television provider via its agency, and its definition of “brand-safe” was way more puritan that I would have guessed based on its risqué programming and target audience. Its criteria were so complicated and specific due to previous legal issues.

The organization provided a whitelist of publishers and still required that it sign off on every single ad buy. It was the most restrictive ad campaign I have ever been a part of. In a situation like that, a rating system isn’t going to help. Those executives wouldn’t have let go of the reins because some third party determined a site to be “PG.” But those cases are the exception. Maybe 20% to 30% of advertisers require such extreme control that a rating system wouldn’t do much good. For the other 70% to 80%, I think it would have merit.

Who Controls The System?

Who would oversee this rating system? IAB sounds like a likely starting point. Perhaps it could create an initiative similar to the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG). TAG is tackling ad fraud, but brand safety isn’t about who is viewing your content, which could be a bot, a criminal or an actual prospect; it is about where your content is being viewed. Ad fraud is still a colossal problem, but TAG has had its victories, and it sure beats doing nothing at all.

As happens every time a digital advertising initiative designed to protect advertisers is proposed, there would be pushback from some publishers. Perhaps some would lobby to change their ratings in an effort to sell more advertising, although if the system is technology-driven and updated constantly at the page level, that may not be too much of an issue.

What I am proposing isn’t much different from what most advertisers try to do themselves every time they run a campaign. Certainly, ad tech companies have put forth rating-system solutions, and there is a slew of advertiser and publisher tools on the market for monitoring site traffic. But whatever we are doing isn’t enough to calm brands’ fears. P&G is so nervous about brand-safety issues that it slashed its digital advertising budget. JPMorgan Chase did the same.

Advertising “accidents” happen all the time. A universal rating system for websites wouldn’t completely eradicate brand-safety issues, but it could at least be a step forward in helping most brands assume greater control over where they advertise. And a step is something, right?

Follow eZanga (@eZangaInc) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. jeffrey sherow

    We don’t often speak about safety in the other direction but it can be equally important. For example, suppose a publisher of certain content – in a real-time bidding world – never wants anything that they view as objectionable advertised on their site. More of this happens these days as retailers, for example, are monetizing their sites in some cases by selling ad space.