In an age of inflammatory news, brand safety is more relevant than ever

Unrest related to Brexit, #BLM, #metoo, lockdowns, vaccinations, this year’s insurrection on Capitol Hill… the instability of today’s global news cycle means brands need to do all they can to protect themselves from accidental negative associations.

More than ever, brands need keep control of their campaigns at speed and scale, across multiple environments, says Tanzil Bukhari, Managing Director, EMEA at DoubleVerify 

Inflammatory news has become all too familiar to consumers in recent years. 

We saw it intensify in January 2021 with unprecedented violence at the US Capitol, and recently, amid the UK and US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. Social justice movements have drawn passionate praise (and from some circles, equally passionate denigration) since the Black Lives Matter movement swept the globe in 2020. Meanwhile, both pandemic- and Brexit-related content remain a hotbed of debate, conflicting opinions, and misinformation. 

These turbulent times have left brands unsure, and often unable, to continue reaching audiences in a brand-safe way. 

This brand paralysis happens for several reasons. Firstly, traditional brand safety tools like keyword lists, while still helpful in many contexts, can’t provide a holistic solution to navigating today’s nuanced news cycles. Secondly, the acceleration of the news cycle has meant even thoughtfully constructed lists can become quickly outdated. Finally, high-growth, emerging channels like Connected TV (CTV) have lacked the standardisation required to ensure safety, particularly during times of inflammatory debate. 

The solution is certainly not to stick our heads in the sand and hope things slow down. 

To meet such challenges there are three key areas on which the ad ecosystem must focus: 

  • Firstly, we must update our outlook and approach to brand safety to make it relevant to today’s challenges. 

  • Secondly, we have to accurately categorise content at scale to enable brands to feel confident that their ads are appearing in safe environments, and that they have control over their campaigns. 

  • Finally, working together, we can future-proof brand safety by innovating new solutions to the risks associated with emerging channels. In this way, we can drive up safety standards across the advertising ecosystem, to the benefit of all. 

Redefining brand safety for a turbulent age

Despite brand safety being an established element of digital marketing for well over a decade now, many misconceptions remain around exactly what it entails. Too often, brand safety has been seen as a tick-box exercise, undertaken once and then forgotten about. For example, a brand might select all the keywords or sites/apps it doesn’t want to be associated with and then move onto other activities.

A stronger foundation for brand safety lies with industry standards like the 4A’s Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB) Brand Safety Floor and Brand Suitability Framework that is also supported by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM).

After all, brand safety and suitability go hand-in-hand. These standards provide a ‘floor’ for no-go content (like terrorism or illegal drugs) and guidance for levels of risk associated with different content types. Brands can then build from the ‘floor’ up based on their specific needs. 

However, with a brand safety framework established, to scale advertising and respond to unexpected news events, brands need a way to target and manage ads within that framework in real time. That’s where categorisation comes in.

Creating accurate content categories 

Effective brand safety requires effective content categorisation. If you can’t identify types of content, you can’t know they are safe. 

But how is content categorisation – and brand safety tiering of those categories – made possible at a scale and speed suited to lightning-fast news cycles? 

Recent advances in semantic science and machine learning technology are now able to drive content classification at speed and scale without sacrificing accuracy. These tools can recognise the nuances of multiple languages and determine, for example, whether an article with words like ‘terror’ and ‘violence’ is talking about an attack in the news, or a new video game. This enables brands to act with confidence when it comes to where their ads are appearing, while also helping publishers monetise content that may underperform if the industry were to rely solely on tools like static keyword lists for brand safety. 

With brand safety and suitability often interconnected, content categories, once established, can also be tiered by the level of risk they present to brands. This can be determined by both the type of content (for example ‘news’ or ‘dramatic depiction’) and the topic. 

By aligning those tiers with the standards set out in the APB’s Brand Safety Floor discussed above, brands, industry bodies, vendors, and other members of the ecosystem can begin to speak a shared language when it comes to brand safety. Such shared understanding both promotes implementation and helps brands comprehensively define and control the types of content they wish to appear alongside. 

Standardising safety on emerging channels 

Industry standards and content categorisation are key pillars of effective brand safety today. However, brand safety never stops. Emerging channels like CTV create evolving brand-safety risks, which call for their own standards. 

While digital video has become an essential element of digital media buys, its relatively unstandardised and fragmented ecosystem has created gaps in brand safety and fraud protection. Until recently, the number of video impressions eligible for post-bid blocking on mobile and desktop has been limited, and virtually none were eligible on CTV and mobile ads. That meant both irrelevant ads appearing to consumers, and brands risking appearances alongside unsuitable content. 

Evolving brand safety 

News cycles won’t slow down. At transformational moments, things move fast. As we emerge from the pandemic, brands need to be prepared to navigate heated issues.

While standards such as a brand safety floor offer a baseline best practice, brands must play an active role in driving safety standards. To do that at scale and speed, and on emerging channels like CTV, requires specific tools and mindsets. 

By treating brand safety as an ongoing process and embracing innovations that can categorise content accurately at scale, across multiple environments, brands can gain control over their campaigns and play their part in building a stronger, safer, and more secure ad ecosystem for all.  

Tanzil Bukhari 

Managing Director, EMEA