Between the occasionally ruthless reactions online communities may have toward seemingly benign statements and rabid, uncompromising fanbases, the internet is no cakewalk for brands. The specter of getting “canceled” has many in the corporate world treading water, unsure of how to effectively use dynamic ads and social media to reach their consumers. This has led to an increased interest in brand safety to give messaging and values the proper context. Brand safety means something different to every company, though plenty of best practices apply to everyone. An airline, for instance, would want to keep its advertisements and promoted social media posts far from breaking news about plane crashes.
While this example is extreme, the concept remains the same — keep your messaging and communications on topic and away from online spaces that may reflect poorly on your business.
What Is Brand Safety?
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines brand safety as a “strategy put in place to help ensure that online advertisements or associations do not appear on websites or in videos and articles that may conflict with a brand’s image, missions, or goals.”
Toward that effort, the IAB suggests steering clear of what the global advertising industry deems the “dirty dozen”:
- Military conflict
- Adult-themed content
- Death or injury
- Internet piracy
- Hate speech
- Spam sites
Recently, the IAB added a 13th category — fake news. This category covers any falsified reports or information that runs counter to verified, factual reporting. Aside from inserting your brand into complicated political discussions, running ads on fake news websites could help fund fraud.
Here are a few common pitfalls to avoid under the umbrella of brand safety:
This colloquial term describes the unfortunate incidents of advertising appearing to be completely unsuited to its context thanks to dynamic ad algorithms. This is especially true for marketing that appears on news stories about serious topics, like those found in the dirty dozen. Much like a newscaster who awkwardly transitions from a story about murder to a fluff piece about kittens, cheerful advertisements in the wrong place at the wrong time seem flippant.
In today’s advertising market, algorithms control much of the details of ad placement and context. While you may not directly control each site where your dynamic ads appear, understanding where and how algorithms direct those ads can prevent malgorithms from derailing public faith in your brand.
Websites like YouTube are valuable for brands looking to get their message to millions of engaged viewers. However, in recent years, video-hosting sites have come under close scrutiny for providing a home for extremist views to propagate unheeded. Businesses must now account for brand safety when advertising here, so consumers don’t relate their image to extreme viewpoints. Organizations like Sleeping Giants inform brands when their ads are broadcast in spaces that assist or affirm extremist views.
The old adage is true: You get what you pay for. Publishers who offer premium advertising placements are more likely to promote brand safety without you having to micromanage your entire ad inventory.
As their reputations are built on safe, efficient advertising for brands, a malgorithm snafu is something they are bound to take personally. This accountability can work in your favor to stop the cascade of consumer discomfort caused by a poorly placed ad before it starts.
On the flip side, a publisher with a cheaper inventory of ad placements may simply take what they can get without any incentive to protect brand safety.
How You Can Promote Brand Safety
In any administrative process designed to protect your business, informing each stakeholder of their role in brand safety is the first step to preventing the unthinkable.
You can break down the specific responsibilities of each stakeholder segment even further:
The first thing brands must do to protect themselves is define what brand safety means for them. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the company’s value system and how it wants to present itself to the public. Defining situations that would definitely not work for your advertisements and promoted social content allows brands to be clear with publishers from the beginning.
Gaining that understanding of the do’s and don’ts also means taking a deeper look at your customer base and their values. Eliminating risk by proactively controlling the context of your ads is the quickest and easiest way to protect brand safety.
Once you have established brand safety standards, the IAB recommends creating a scorecard or policy that holds publishers and verification partners accountable. Review these policies every six months to keep your brand safety protocols from becoming stagnant.
Choosing the right publisher and platform for a brand is obviously the responsibility of brand safety stakeholders. However, that doesn’t mean publishers are left without any role in protecting the image of its clientele. Today’s publishers are constantly looking for ways to increase traffic, but unexpected or fraudulent practices to accomplish this are unfortunately common.
Bot traffic, the act of artificially inflating viewing statistics through computerized “viewers,” is a prevalent form of publishing fraud. You should avoid any publisher that manipulates its numbers this way.
It’s up to publishers to highlight and promote the value of the brands that advertise with it, building trust in their platform along the way. They can do this through the proper flagging of content, delineating between appropriate and inappropriate native content for a brand’s needs.
Along with their typical role as the creative force behind a brand's advertisements, these firms have become a popular way to efficiently place brands as industry thought leaders. As such, they have a responsibility to take care of their client’s image throughout the content production process.
These companies are not always as adept at spotting inappropriate context, as they won’t be privy to the full depth of your brand’s image. Communication about a brand’s needs is necessary to guarantee accountability from ad agencies. If these agencies fully control your advertising, including content and placement, you should properly vet their brand safety policy.
Quick Tips and Tricks to Improve Brand Safety
In a big world, there are plenty of ways for your brand’s messaging to wind up in unseemly situations. Here are a few quick points to help you learn from brands’ past mistakes:
- Blacklist inappropriate keywords: Consider the example of the airline that wishes to keep its advertisements away from news that may sew doubt about safety standards. They might want to consider blacklisting content with certain keywords, such as “plane crash,” to eliminate the possibility of an unfortunate malgorithm. Figure out what keywords your brand should avoid and automatically reject content that features them.
- Consider a direct ad deal over a programmatic agreement: Programmatic ads, or ads bought and sold through an automated ad system hosted by a publisher, can be one of the least expensive channels to spread your messaging. Yet, they leave much to be desired. Many of the malgorithms you see online are the result of programmatic ad deals since no human is preventing them.
A direct deal with a publisher is preferable as it sets out terms from the beginning that take more care in finding appropriate spaces for your ads. These direct deals are especially good for companies with larger budgets.
- Partner with a marketing platform with rigid brand safety guidelines: Platforms like AdRoll feature a robust system of guidelines, so both a brand’s ads and their online placements follow carefully considered standards. Content featuring adult themes, disingenuous claims, and fraudulent practices are not allowed on the platform. A partnership with AdRoll ensures your ads build the image you want, forging a bond of trust between your brand and the consumers you rely on.
Originally published on June 10th, 2021, last updated on June 16th, 2022.