Heterodox thoughts on brand safety
(Necessary disclaimer: this newsletter represents my own views and not those of the advertising industry at large or my employer.)
What is brand safety? In short, it's a term generally used in the advertising industry to refer to efforts to keep brand messaging (that is, ads) from appearing next to content that's inappropriate and thus damaging to the brand's preferred image. Although people define brand safety differently, it's generally thought to include at least the dirty dozen* categories pictured above: things like hate speech, terrorism, or illegal drugs. When brands run ads on TV or online, their goal is to ensure that their ads don't show up adjacent (either chronologically, as on TV or Snapchat; or spatially, as in a newspaper or on a web page) to unsafe content.
As a product manager working in the area of digital brand safety, one question that comes to mind a lot is: what's the real risk here? Leaving aside TV, which is slightly more nuanced, brand safety online is largely centered around content that the user deliberately selected. That is, if I decide to visit a pornographic web site and a Bank of America ad shows up, would I really be offended?
The ad industry would have you believe that yes, I would. (They're not entirely without self-interest here: you have to convince the patient they're diseased before you can sell them the cure.) But while this may be the case in certain circumstances, I'm not entirely convinced.
Some evidence, in fact, points in the other direction. This 2018 GumGum report, for example, quotes a representative of Sleeping Giants, a Twitter account that publicly shames brands for running ads on offensive news sites:
You kind of know it when you see it. And when advertisers see it, they don’t want to be a part of it. That’s why a simple screenshot of their ad next to Breitbart’s content has worked. We haven’t had to do any real convincing.
In short, ad execs are most jumpy about the possibility of bad PR, less so that an actual user may become upset at a brand showing up next to the offensive content (s)he had voluntarily decided to consume anyway.
A similar clue shows up in an Oath survey on brand safety conducted last year: the focus was overwhelmingly on the advertisers (99% of whom "are concerned with their ads appearing in brand safe environments" and 58% of whom "are more concerned this year than last year"), not the users. A 2017 Teads study followed a similar pattern, claiming that 98% of chief marketing officers "will choose agencies or suppliers based on their ability to prove brand safety and transparency."
Granted, brand perception is a real thing. A major brand's global head of online investment that I spoke to recently about this explained it thusly: brand advertisers spend millions of dollars annually to present a certain public face to the world, and the possibility of a well-publicized ad placement mishap can shatter countless hours and dollars of work in the public's mind.
Moreover, the industry's focus on advertisers is not to say that users are entirely unconcerned either. As the CMO Council report linked above points out, users -- when asked about the topic -- do evince at least some anxiety about online advertising practices. And a nine-country Edelman study released last year corroborates this, to a degree:
...A vast majority of consumers around the world want brands to pressure social media platforms to more effectively:
- 71 percent - safeguard personal data;
- 70 percent - curb the spread of fake news;
- 68 percent - shield them from offensive content.
But asking users what they want advertisers to do, or what they themselves might do in response to perceived brand missteps, is potentially quite different from observing what happens in reality. Indeed, in that sense, the above-mentioned GumGum report truly buries the lede:
Social media boycotters may make a lot of noise, but rarely do brand safety incidents significantly hurt the bottom line. While 47 percent of brand respondents noted social media blowback in response to a brand safety incident, and 25 percent said they’d gotten negative press, juts [sic] 13 percent said they’d lost revenue. And, of those who’d lost revenue, 56 percent of respondents said it amounted to no more than $10,000.
In other words, it's not totally clear who's being kept safer with brand safety: the end users or the CMOs.
(More to come soon on this topic.)
* Side note: where did the concept of the "dirty dozen" even originate?
A Grapeshot whitepaper from 2016 says that "there is a standard 'dirty dozen' category list used by the industry, to track and exclude pages." (See above image.)
An MRC document from 2018 refers to "the Industry’s 'dirty dozen' category list."
An IAB South Africa whitepaper from 2018 states that "the global digital advertising industry refers to the 'Dirty Dozen' categories to avoid" and lists the same categories as Grapeshot.
In short, it's not an open-and-shut case as to who came up with this term -- or the underlying categories -- in the first place. As with many developments in advertising, the concept's origin story is pretty muddled. I'm still digging.