Suitable Not Safe: Why Advertisers Should Lean Into Sensitive Content

In an era of meteoric social change, brand safety tactics are causing division and damaging the very reputations they’re designed to protect. It’s time to redress the balance, writes Phil Schraeder, CEO of artificial intelligence company GumGum, and global marketing consultant, Lisa Licht.

The seismic events of the past six months have taken the cracks already evident in brand safety and turned them into gaping chasms.

Agencies hired to protect corporate image are bringing respected news outlets to their knees by blocking Covid-related search terms. Brands paying lip service to Black Lives Matter on Instagram are blocking the term “George Floyd” in the same breath.

In today’s culture of internet shaming, it’s easy to villainise these blunders, but the reality deserves a more nuanced appraisal. The truth is that more often than not brands want to do the right thing. It is the handful of industry-standard brand safety systems that brands rely on, however, that can drive open the gap between brand intention and brand behavior. Those systems are simply too blunt.

That’s because, when it comes to online advertising, the entire concept of safety is a misnomer. Many of the generic keywords regularly blocked by advertisers often cut brands off from large amounts of perfectly safe premium content. The word ‘bomb’, for example, could just as likely be a story about a Hollywood film that performed badly at the box office. The same content that url and keyword blocklisting strategies deem safe may, by virtue of “safe” curation parameters, be bland and irrelevant. Worse, the mere act of putting words such as “fat”, “Muslim” or “gay” on a blocklist to avoid sensitive content reveals a bigotry that is actively damaging.

We were recently joined by experts representing both publisher and brand perspectives for a live webinar on how brands can stay safe without impeding their reach or betraying their ethical values. We agreed that brand safety as we know it should be retired. In its place: Brand suitability — a proactive contextual targeting-based strategy made possible with new technologies that bring a nuanced edge sharp enough to cut through today’s volatile digital landscape.

Expanding Reach with Meaningful Conversations

Blocklisting terms and words related to coronavirus and Black Lives Matter is not only ethically wrong: it also cuts brands off from a treasure trove of meaningful and original content.

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, analysis by Verity, the content classification engine powering GumGum’s contextual advertising solutions, revealed that 67% of pages blocked due to COVID-related keywords actually represented a safe environment for advertising. That’s over four million demonetised pages and a huge audience pool that advertisers actively avoided at a time when audiences were stuck at home fixated on digital content.

Paul Wallace is Global Vice President at VICE Media Group, one of the first publishers to shine a spotlight on the problems with keyword-based brand safety solutions when, in 2019, it announced that it would no longer accept the blocking of certain keywords. Wallace has been a vocal Vice spokesperson on this topic, most recently drawing public attention to insidious keyword blocking of Black Lives Matter-related content.

According to Wallace, only around 20% of consumers have a negative perception of ads served next to controversial topics. The remaining 80% understand that provocative content “just reflects real life today,” Wallace says. “I don’t think they care as much as we think they care.”

So brand safety tactics may well be jumping the gun on content that audiences are fine with: the very same content that is so often also eminently purposeful.

In addition, major brands including Verizon and Burger King, are beginning to recognise news content is not only important for advertising but also for society as a whole. Brands increasingly want to appear in that content space, but the brand safety tools they’re employing stand in the way.

In Search of Perceptive Brand Safety Solutions

Where we see brand safety starting to fail, creating a fissure between marketers, their values and the audiences that they want to reach, Paul Wallace believes that blocklisting “never worked to begin with.”

“The solution that was put in place [to bring safety to programmatic advertising] was rushed,” he says. “It’s time to begin to deploy technology that is thoughtful and purposeful.” Wallace is convinced that these technologies can effectively “bring brands to the right content where their audiences are most apt to engage.”

Rather than arbitrarily blocking content based on a reference to a sensitive subject matter, the brand suitability systems that Wallace and others are advocating for use advanced machine learning to analyse content. Basic versions of these systems read text and metadata, but the most advanced iterations, like Verity, can evaluate the totality of a webpage — analysing images, video and audio in addition to text. The machine’s analysis is then used to determine whether the context is suitable for the ads of a given brand.

This human-like level of perception allows brands to break away from the comfort zone of “safe” content and instead leverage the power of vital, time-sensitive conversations.

As a brand, you cannot extend your advertising reach and revenue without being part of important stories related to current events. Suitability tools help to achieve this synchrony in a way that feels authentic and balanced.

Bridging the Aspiration Gap

Beyond establishing a presence in the news agenda, brand suitability enables advertisers to close what CMO Tara DeVeaux refers to as “the aspiration gap”.

Tara, who heads up marketing operations for creative agency 3AM / Wild Card, says this move is all about “aligning what a brand aspires to be with actual brand behaviours that are happening, both inside and outside of the company.”

This gap is an issue at the best of times. But it becomes particularly problematic when a brand publicly champions gay rights, body diversity or Black Lives Matter, only to block advertising around terms such as “queer”, “fat” or “Black people” in the name of “brand safety”.

Digital marketers who use these blacklists are generally motivated by fear rather than malice. They are, as Tara says, hyper-sensitive to “cancel culture that has become so prevalent.” In grappling to respond to the new and fast-changing sphere of digital advertising, the pendulum is swinging too far in one direction.

Brand suitability systems restore the equilibrium, giving brands visibility within sensitive content areas without suppressing marginal voices or defunding genuine news in an era of fakery.

Becoming the Bigger Player

Of course, it takes work to embark on a journey of brand suitability. You’ll need to think closely about how your brand’s purpose-to-action arc takes shape.

Tara notes that slip-ups are sometimes inevitable. But the more considered approach to digital advertising means that “your consumer is more accepting [of those mistakes] because you have been so consistent in telling your brand story and communicating your values.”

Openness, then, is key. As Paul says: “If you’re going to walk that walk, do it the entire way.” Your brand needs to educate itself about what brand suitability really means, then hold your agencies to account over it. For full transparency, you may even start by considering making your blocklists public.

Using ad placement to be a part of vital, sometimes difficult, conversations is a leap of faith. But AI-enabled technology helps ease the transition. More importantly, it moves you from the defensive outpost of brand safety to a position of power.

You don’t need a block list of 2500 keywords to navigate today’s febrile news environment. You just need to be part of it in a way that’s thoughtful, open and fearlessly true to your values.

To learn more, access the webinar here.

Written by Will Hurrell

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