The Role of Brand Safety in Digital Marketing

Brand Safety

Brand safety is not a new concept. Since the inception of newspapers and magazines, advertisers have recognized that advertising needs to be placed properly within the content. Layouts encompass more than just the visual appeal of how a page is organized. Ads, ideally, should be placed next to content that is complimentary. Ads that harshly contrast with the content they appear next to are seen as a less effective marketing strategy. An ad that is relevant to the content it sits next to makes for more effective marketing. However, placing the wrong ads next to the wrong content can have disastrous consequences.


Beyond effective marketing, poor ad placement can damage a brand’s reputation and standing in the eyes of investors and customers alike. No brand wants their brand associated with objectionable or offensive content, especially if that content doesn’t align with the values of the brand.


Mere Accidental Association

Brand safety is defined as the strategy of ensuring ads do not appear on, in, or next to content the brand does not approve of. The fear of customers associating a brand with abhorrent content because of ad placement is real, justified, and has been realized. That fear has led to brands making drastic changes and highly impactful judgment calls. One example of this fear making an impact is the 2017 YouTube “adpocoplypse”. Over 300 brands including Adidas, Amazon, and the CDC were alerted to their ads playing alongside white supremacy, Nazi, and other problematic content. In response, many brands paused their advertising buy on YouTube, and an investigation was launched.


Even though the channel the ad appeared on had no connection to an affected brand, YouTube pairing the two together created a big problem. Whether intend to or not, our brain records what we see and pairs things we see close together, so even though the ad never mentions the offending content, seeing that ad before the content pairs the two subconsciously.


YouTube, even before the 2017 disaster, has tools that help advertisers place their ads. Companies can target demographics and user behavior. Companies can even blacklist specific channels and use a filter to “exclude sensitive subjects”. However, many brands have said that despite tailoring their ad placement settings, their ads still appeared on questionable content.  Take every step possible to ensure your ad does not end up next to content you disagree with to prevent negative association, but also accept that absolute control is not a reality.


Data Information

After running an ad, you want to know how it did, and if you posted the ad online, then there are likely tools you can use to see exact metrics. Twitter and Instagram will show you the total number of impressions and interactions so you can see what ads are working and which ones are not. More popular and well-liked ads do more work for a brand than a lower performing ad. The best ads also bolster overall brand image, meaning an ad can sell more than a product to a customer, such as a brand, company, product, lifestyle, and more. Use this collected data to better inform future ads.


Dirty Dozen + 1

The Internet Advertising Bureau has created a list of what it considers inappropriate or illegal topics that marketers should avoid. The list nicknamed the “dirty dozen” includes drugs, crime, terrorism, as well as obscenity, military, and adults. “Fake news” is the 13th item on the list that was added in 2018. Running an ad in content related to any of the “dirty dozen” puts your brand safety at risk.


However, the “dirty dozen” is a vague list. Of course, it is safe to assume no brand wants to be associated with terrorism or crime, but other entries are largely subjective. What one person finds obscene might be perfectly fine to someone else.


There is also the reality that some brands are fine with some content topics that others are not. A car crash lawyer might be perfectly fine running ads next to a road accident story, but a baby car-seat maker might not want that association.


Interpreting the “dirty dozen” list is up to you and your brand. Use the list as a starting place to determine what your brand is ok with and what it is not.


Brand safety is an important factor when placing ads. You want to protect your brand without having your brand image ruined by something you don’t approve of. Before running ads on a platform, take the time to adjust any settings regarding ad placement. Be mindful of negative association created through ad placement. Determine what categories of content your brand is fine with and which ones cross the line. The “dirty dozen” list can help you figure out what to avoid in general before you nail down specific topics that you want nothing to do with.




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