What a Subway scandal taught an ad exec about brand safety

brand safety

In 2015, when Subway’s most prominent spokesman suddenly became a reviled felon, Ken van Every’s team hit on a blunt solution: avoid all things Jared. Van Every, then working for a software provider on behalf of the sandwich chain, decided to employ a keyword blocking strategy.  “If any page on the site said the word ‘Jared,’ that was going to be avoided by this web campaign,” he explained. 

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To be fair, the strategy did work —  but probably too well. While successfully avoiding bad news, the campaign traded brand safety for scale. “You have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said van Every, now the head of programmatic for Cars.com.  

In the wake of 2017’s so-called “adpocalypse,” when brands from Verizon to L’Oréal started yanking ads from YouTube to avoid association with the likes of ISIS and Neo-Nazis, one thing was clear: Brand safety had vaulted to the top of all advertisers’ concerns, not just a select few that had been rocked by scandal.  Keyword blocking was suddenly widely used: By the end of 2017, 53 percent of marketers were using the tactic to prevent brand safety incidents, according to our survey that year.  

Buy-side practitioners like van Every weren’t alone in lamenting the turn of events. Publishers, not surprisingly, haven’t been keen on getting shunned by advertisers simply because they had the temerity to report on sensitive topics — AKA the news. 

Earlier this year, one publisher, Vice, took matters into its own hands and removed a number of words —  such as “queer,” “fat,” “Muslim,” “feminist” and “transgender” — from its ad blocklists. Like van Every, Vice observed an ecosystem in which advertisers were avoiding not just divisive publishers and news, but pretty much all relevant conversation. They were biasing their placements against readers who were passionate about that subject matter. “Our goal is to deliver on brand safety, but to do so in a way where we’re not creating bias,” said Cavel Khan, Vice’s vp of client partnerships, at the time.

That kind of restrictiveness isn’t just bad for publishers —  it’s bad for advertisers. It’s the same problem van Every ran into when his team overreacted to a scandal. “When you take it too far, you can end up avoiding the news sites altogether,” van Every said. “When we talk about where people’s eyeballs are, they’re definitely on news sites.”

As other restrictive tactics like whitelisting and blacklisting have come into vogue, some brands have continued grappling with how to avoid insulating themselves from favorable audiences. In fact, the problem may be growing. According to our end-of-year 2018 survey, 69 percent of practitioners faced some degree of inability to reach specific audiences as a direct result of their brand safety precautions. That was a staggering 40 percent increase over the year before.

Advertisers and publishers alike are finally coming to realize that they need to strike a balance between protecting their brands, meeting their contextual targets and finding engaged audiences. In addition to keyword blocking, whitelists and blacklists, a number of advertisers have now begun introducing automated, scalable technologies like image recognition and natural language processing. 

“Seventy percent of consumers identify themselves as belief-driven or values-driven,” explained Eric Zeugschmidt, vice president of corporate crisis and reputation at Edelman in Atlanta. “If they believe that your brand represents who they are, they’re exponentially more likely to be loyal to your brand.” 

But when brands are overly restrictive in their approach to targeting, they can’t reach users at those moments when they’re most engaged with their beliefs and values. Just like van Every in 2015, the industry at large is still walking the razor’s edge between scale and safety. 

GumGum recently took its questions about brand safety on the road, asking executives across the country how they’re balancing their need to reach audiences with their need to avoid brand-unsafe content. You can find our full report here.



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