Brand Safety After The Google Boycott: Finally A Catalyst For Stronger Content Categorization And Screening?

In the wake of realizing that Google, even with all of its impressive tools, failed to prevent all ads purchased programmatically from appearing alongside terrorist and hate group content, what’s the next move for brands (and for ad tech)? Will the subsequent boycotts – through which brands are rightfully voicing outrage at having been exposed to unpleasant associations – cause things to demonstrably change? History has thus far told another story, but I’m optimistic the current groundswell in brand frustration will have an impact that’s long overdue.

Ads served to websites with content that is inconsistent with a brand’s image – especially content that is near-universally offensive – go beyond embarrassment. A single screen grab shared across Twitter can now generate an immediate backlash, instantly tarnishing the image a brand has spent years (and countless marketing dollars) to hone. With a goal (and, really, an assumption) of avoiding these incidents, brands have looked to the walled gardens of trusted video and/or display networks (like Google’s).

There’s generally been a belief that these platforms – with their own brands to protect – must have superior capabilities for categorizing inappropriate content and ensuring brand safety. But the major display networks are generally not doing a satisfactory job of policing content, and haven’t been for some time.

I’d argue it’s actually the demand-side platforms (DSPs) and other providers that enable programmatic ad buys who have best recognized the risks brands face, and who have implemented the most effective solutions to address the issue to date. For a premium charge, most DSPs will utilize real-time categorization tools that can scan ad requests and check that placements are safe for a given brand (with relatively few false negatives). So, for brands working with DSPs, there’s a decision: pay extra to minimize risks to your brand equity, or accept the risks and save some budget. Most often, brands select to run ads without these protections. However, given the new attention that this (not at all new) problem is receiving, brand decision-making around these protections may finally evolve.

Going forward, I believe it will best serve the industry as a whole to get ahead of this problem. The clearest path to doing so is for DSPs to include brand safety protections platform-wide by default, rather than for selected individual campaigns. By proactively addressing what’s been a little-known but pervasive issue before it earns a larger spotlight – rather than being embarrassed into it later – DSPs can actually have a transformative effect on both brand safety and online advertising, ensuring that the ugliest sites out there are free of reputable ads.

In order to tactically execute this across-the-board approach, DSPs will need to make sure that their real-time brand safety categorization capabilities are tuned to recognize several levels of problematic content. This means discerning sites and content belonging to terrorist, hate group, violence, and other extremist categories, as well as that belonging to categories that simply don’t align with a specific brand’s values.

With a platform-wide approach to blocking sites and content, DSPs will need to take care not to interrupt advertisers’ abilities to reach certain audiences that one brand may wish to target and another may not. For example, an advertiser with a brand aimed at children would likely have many more restrictions on where its ads display than a mainstream brand.

Because of this, DSPs and other ad buyers will need to understand and tailor activities around the specific brand safety needs of each of the brands they serve. This means screening ad placements on two levels. First, a “platform-wide” screening that blocks sites and content that no brand would wish to be associated with (terrorism, hate speech, etc.). Second, a “brand specific” screening that blocks categories to provide brand safety for the particular brand in question. As DSPs function today, these two levels are essentially lumped into one, with any screening whatsoever simply switched on if paid for (or nonexistent if not).

The recent attention on ad placements should be a wake-up call for all brands , many of which have never realized that this kind of screening isn’t being done at the platform level. Brands should examine this situation and ask the question, why is there a higher cost for adding brand safety to a campaign? The answer is that it’s a valuable service and it isn’t easy (technically speaking) to do well.

While I argue that the ad buying industry should implement brand safety measures platform-wide, at the moment, brands get what they pay for. At the very least, brands should be more aware of the differences between walled-garden display networks and other ad buying services, and ought to account for the true costs of implementing brand safety protections versus the potential reputational harm of going without them.