Advertising, brand safety, and programmatic: Do you know where your ads live?

John Koetsier

Programmatic advertising, ad exchanges, and multiple ad partners are a wonderful ecosystem that has sped up transactions, opened under-utilized inventory, saved advertisers money, and earned niche publishers more revenue. It’s also something that, without care and attention, can result in massive reputation damage and huge brand safety violations.

How would you feel if your brands’ ads supported terrorism, for example?

How would your customers feel?

That’s exactly the scenario Mercedes-Benz recently found itself in, along with UK grocery service Waitrose and hospice provider Marie Curie. And it’s precisely the reason that Land Rover halted all of its digital advertising in the UK, at least for a period.

Some of the world’s biggest brands are unwittingly funding Islamic extremists, white supremacists, and pornographers by advertising on their websites,” the Times said last month.

In the U.S., brands have recently become socially and politically active, often at the very vocal requests of their customers. For example, almost a thousand companies including Kelloggs, BMW, Visa, and T-Mobile cut adspend on news sites like Breitbart, which has been accused of running racist and misogynistic articles.

Wherever you and your brand stand, the reality is that marketers want their ads to run in places that customers won’t find offensive. The problem is that thanks to third-party advertising companies, programmatic advertising, and ad exchanges where multiple ad networks buy and sell ad inventory, many brands don’t know where their ads run. Tech deals retailer Newegg, for instance, didn’t know its ads were running on Breitbart until customers complained on Twitter.

The problem isn’t really programmatic advertising, per se. It’s programmatic advertising without the proper controls.

The safest method for almost complete brand safety is whitelisting.

When brand marketers whitelist web and mobile publishers that their ads can run against, they’re specifically choosing known properties that align –or at least don’t conflict — with their values. Blacklisting works as well, but presumes that you’re staying up to date with all the latest niche, extremist, and potentially hateful publishers that continue to spring up.

Of course, it’s not all black and white, and it’s not just about extremism or hatred.

MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, for instance, might not want to run ads on a party-and-alcohol site. Or … they might specifically want to. Anti-racism advocates might not want to support an extremist news site … or they might feel that’s precisely where their message is most needed.

In response to the challenges in the UK, Google, for instance, is not only taking a tougher stance against allowing its ads to run on objectionable third-party sites. It is also giving marketers more granular controls over what kinds of content their ads can accompany on Google-owned properties such as YouTube, helping them manage brand safety better.

Brands and marketers will have to make their own calls about what to do and how to accomplish their goals on an individual basis.

But one thing all brands and all marketers should do: know where your ads are running, know why, and be prepared with a rationale when someone complains.

John Koetsier

Before acting as a mobile economist for TUNE, John built the VB Insight research team at VentureBeat and managed teams creating software for partners like Intel and Disney. In addition, he led technical teams, built social sites and mobile apps, and consulted on mobile, social, and IoT. In 2014, he was named to Folio's top 100 of the media industry's "most innovative entrepreneurs and market shaker-uppers." John lives in British Columbia, Canada with his family, where he coaches baseball and hockey, though not at the same time.

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