Why ‘brand suitability’ is replacing brand safety

Being overprotective of where their ads appear has had drawbacks for advertisers. Block lists guarantee advertisers brand-safe placements but they also come with a hefty price in terms of limited reach and engagement. As more advertisers feel the costs of artificially constraining inventory through the use of bloated block lists, they are considering placing advertising on content at the margins of their standard brand-safety strategies.

Advertisers’ new, more nuanced approach to brand safety is more focused on finding places suitable for their ads than avoiding inappropriate content. For example, a consumer packaged goods advertiser will have a different tolerance for risk (and thus for edgier content) than will an advertiser for a gaming company. Ultimately, these advertisers must figure out how to strike the right balance between being very strict on brand safety versus achieving the level of reach they need.

“When we think about brand suitability, the better the definitions that we have for content that is categorized by the platforms, the better choices we have for where we run our ads,” said Unilever’s svp of global media, Luis Di Como.

Ad-targeting tools from platforms do not always have definitions for sifting content so that marketers can know the type of music videos their ads might run against, said Di Como. While advertisers might not consider all types of music as unsavory in the way a video promoting terrorism is, Di Como wants Unilever ads to steer clear of certain styles.

“Music [involves] a wide spectrum of different artists,” Di Como said. “You can go from classical to hard-core rock that could be quite violent, which is a place we don’t want to be. If we’re not able to classify this type of content, then we’ll potentially have to remove some of the investment. What need to do is ensure our investment is used as a force for good.”

In 2017 a brand safety crisis ensued when advertisers found their YouTube ads had appeared next to videos about terrorism. Small pockets of marketers have said that no one-size-fits-all strategy would enable them to avoid inappropriate or irrelevant content. But their views have been drowned out by the panic among other advertisers.

More advertisers turned to block lists (to avoid specific keywords, channels or publishers) and protect their ads. The use of block lists within the ad-targeting tools provided by ad-verification companies led to considerable amounts of content being automatically blocked, but this eliminated much “acceptable” content along with “unacceptable” content. Over time the block lists have grown so long that they limit an advertiser’s reach, since they restrict what would might be ordinarily deemed be appropriate content.

Thus, block lists has not delivered the outcome desired by advertisers. The frequency of occurrences of major brand-safety issues may have slowed since 2017, but the risk remains (as evidenced earlier this month when Samsung and L’Oréal found they had advertised on YouTube videos promoting climate change denial).

“You might think that the longer the list, which can be feature up to thousands of words, the greater the rigor on it. But that’s not the reality,” said Tracy De Groose, CEO of U.K. Newsworks at an IAB event earlier this week. “Innocent phrases are getting impacted by a black-and-white approach to block lists. Therefore, safe content is being redefined as not safe,” added De Groose, whose organization serves as a marketing organization for U.K. news companies

With today’s more advanced contextual technologies, more elegant alternatives to blacklisting exist.

Some technology companies offer brand safety, brand suitability, and sentiment analysis on the webpage level, said Andrew Morsy, managing director for contextual-targeting vendor Peer 39’s international business. These companies give advertisers the tools they need to avoid he content they find undesirable in a pre-bid environment, without the need for using a blacklist, Morsy said. But discerning the nuanced contextual preferences that separate a story about Jaguar, the car brand, from a piece about the large cat species isn’t easy. That’s why Integral Ad Science bought ad tech vendor Admantx for its natural-language processing tech last year. And Zefr built a contextual data management platform it expects to further enhance in 2020.

These tech companies expect increased interest from advertisers in contextual advertising tools; this has been  building since 2018 when the General Data Protection Regulation went into effect and forced advertisers to re-evaluate how they target users online.

“There needs to be a greater application of technology that uses context to help marketers overcome the difficulty of using hard-line block lists that don’t work,” said Peter Wallace, commercial director for GumGum’s business across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. GumGum is an artificial intelligence company.

Despite the amount of potential income that block lists have cost publishers, they have not made a concerted push to figure out how to resolve this until recently. Now some U.K. publishers are weighing whether to use the AI-driven brand safety platform from the publisher Reach. And News U.K. is working with Reach to test other contextual solutions in partnership with media agency IPG Mediabrands. Since it launched its tool last year, Reach (which owns the Daily Mirror), has seen a 40% uplift in the number of its stories being cleared for advertising as opposed to being blocked.

“Brand safety has had some unfortunate, unintended consequences for publishers as it’s given them less inventory [that] they’re able to monetize,” Nick  Morley, Integral Ad Science’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said at the IAB event.


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