The Unintended Consequences Of Brand Safety  

Jed Hartman

"The Sell Sider" is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today's column is written by Jed Hartman, US President, Channel Factory.

The evolution of digital media has unleashed a number of unintended negative consequences.

Just to rattle off a few examples: The quest for impression-based scale led to advertisers buying impressions that would never be in view; the quest for clicks gave us clickbait, click farms and fraud; the need for TV-like engagement and impact brought about interstitials, superstitials and annoying ads, which created demand for and led to the rise of ad blocking; deft laser targeting brought about privacy issues; and the binary swing from content to pure audience targeting created brand safety and suitability problems – all unintended negative consequences due to the pursuit of innovation.

Pursuing brand safety and suitability is having similar unintended consequences, and it needs to be tackled now.

Irresponsible and aggressive implementations of brand safety block diverse communities and segments of the population from serving ads, preventing creators who rely on monetization from making a living from ads on their channels.

In a recent study from CHEQ, researchers found that 73% of LGBTQ+ creators’ content was not monetized online. We took a look at standard industry block lists on campaigns we ran and found that not only were LGBTQ+ creators facing challenges, but so were Black, Asian and Latinx creators. Why?

In trying to do good, industry standard block lists end up penalizing creators who use certain words or phrases that may be typical in their community. Words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “trans” and “hip-hop” appear on recent block lists we’ve encountered. After a year of facing a global reckoning on how to create a more inclusive society, these blocking tactics must be challenged now.

What’s more, inclusion lists, composed of creators and channels a brand wishes to reach, are often, ironically, not inclusive at all due to the use of block lists. If you aren’t making a specific effort to include diverse creators and communities in your lists, they can have a tendency to be more exclusive than inclusive. This is unintentional but very, very bad.

A brand may not want to run within content that uses profanity, which makes sense for most brands. Often, hip-hop is blocked as a whole, as the lyrics can include profanity. This entire wonderfully creative genre of mostly black artists is then prevented from monetizing their craft. That is unimaginably terrible.

Or within the US, all non-English is blocked as the agency or vendor doesn’t have the technology to determine if content is brand safe or suitable due to its language – so they just block all non-English. This demonetizes Asian American, Latinx and many other communities in America who are just trying to entertain, engage or inform community members while making a living. Totally absurd.

Journalism and news creators are also demonetized on some platforms, as blocking all news is easier than blocking just catastrophic news.

In today’s more enlightened era of diversity, equity and inclusion, there is, and needs to be, a better solution for advertising in a contextually aligned, brand safe and suitable way that is actually inclusive.

Consumers will support brands taking a more inclusive approach:

How to build a conscious strategy

So armed with this information, how can the media industry help foster a more positive ecosystem and enable more conscious advertising?

  1. Advertisers should think about media investment as a proxy for brand values. Most companies today have purpose-driven marketing strategies and an element of cause marketing, in addition to funding and supporting the causes and initiatives brands believe in.If you are a brand that is dedicated to a social cause, your brand values can be illustrated in the content, publishers and creators you are supporting. Tactically, that means more responsible blocking, ensuring your inclusion lists are actually inclusive, and funding content creators that align with your values, which puts money directly into the pocket of the creators you want to support.
  1. Put in place responsible blocking strategies. The block list is a key brand safety measure, but is not a perfect science. Lists are often outdated and often block words that should not be blocked. Minority creators across the board are disproportionately impacted by the antiquated block lists. Advertisers need to reexamine block lists and evaluate if subcultures are equally and representatively aligned.
  2. Make inclusive inclusion lists. While block lists dictate what you do not want your content appearing alongside, inclusion lists outline what is suitable for your brand. When done properly, inclusion lists place a brand's ads around content that makes sense for their brand message and can deliver better performance through content alignment. When vetting inclusion lists, brands and advertisers should be extra attentive, ensuring that their lists are diverse and feature a wide range of topics and creators. After all, it isn’t so crazy to think that inclusion lists should be inclusive!
  3. Advertisers need to invest in minority influencers or content creators it believes in. When brands enable those creators to create more content and engage more with their audience, a flywheel effect develops that helps build a better video ecosystem for creators, brands and consumers.

Building a better digital ecosystem – one that actually listens and responds to the audiences consuming the content – won’t be as complex and muddy as we may think. We all need to do our part, remembering four things: Build inclusive targeting strategies, fund creators and content that aligns to brand values, fund journalism and ensure that any legacy content blocking that harms minority creators is eliminated.

If all the creators with positive intentions get all the ad dollars, then there won’t be any dollars for those with negative intentions. That is an unintended consequence I can live with.

Follow Channel Factory (@Channel_Factory) and AdExchanger (@AdExchanger) on Twitter.

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