Better to be brand safe than brand sorry

David Walsh

30 October 2019

It’s rare for marketing stories to make front page news, but when it happens it’s usually for good reason. One notable example arrived when major advertisers, including AT&T, Pepsi, and Walmart pulled advertising from YouTube after discovering their ads were placing alongside extremist content.

More recently, the LAPD was revealed to be running recruitment ads on alt-right news site Breitbart. The ads had been bought programmatically, a transaction in which advertisers bid to serve ads to individuals based on their background and behavior. The ads are then served to that user across the internet, on all manner of sites.

The LAPD likely had no idea where these ads were placing, but that mattered not. The backlash was fierce, resulting in an LAPD apology clarifying that its ‘core values’ did not align with Breitbart’s. However, the damage had already been done and the LAPD’s attempts to position itself as an inclusive employer were undermined.

Brand safety violations are on the rise

This is just one occasion when one impression in a million ad placements can result in a firestorm of negativity that may stick with a brand for years. According to digital media measurement company DoubleVerify, brand safety violations increased 25% in 2018 – despite increased awareness thanks to major press coverage of the issue.

While programmatic advertising means a publisher and advertiser may have no direct relationship, this is not understood by the average consumer. As such, any ad investment is seen as a conscious choice to appear around the content on that page – and therefore an endorsement of that publisher’s values and opinions. When this partnership is misaligned, brand credibility and image is undermined and users are left with a sour taste. 

In a survey commissioned by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, 70% of consumers indicated they respond negatively to brands when their ads appear next to unsavory content. Such negative sentiment undermines a brand’s credibility and trust, presenting a risk to the bottom line.

Programmatic advertising is engineered to fail

Marketers must react by taking back control of their advertising.

Instead of spreading themselves thinly across the internet through programmatic, we recommend clients invest in a core set of channels, which they know their audience trust. This approach ensures ads are shown in the right context – and helps to mitigate much of the risk around brand safety.

In examples where programmatic advertising is still desired, marketers must take steps to manage the risk. This includes creating a whitelist of trusted publications whose values and image align with their brand, and a corresponding blacklist of publications they deem as inappropriate. This blacklist must be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure it remains effective.

Partnering with a digital advertising verification vendor further augments security over ad placements. Make sure to work with a technology partner that doesn’t just use monitoring technology, but also blocks ads from showing on those pages. 

Marketers must realize, however, that risk cannot be eradicated when buying programmatically. By design, programmatic buying requires marketers to cede control over where their ads are shown – and failures can make front page news. If buying programmatically you must accept this risk and be prepared as a business to respond.

Is it worth risking your customers for whatever incremental gains might be offered by programmatic? For most businesses this risk is hard to justify.