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The Evolution of Brand Safety

In just 25 years, brand safety has emerged from the pre-digital dark ages to the leading edge of advertising technology. Here’s a look back at how far we’ve come.

The Pre-Digital Marketing Era:
Ah, simpler times. Before the dawn of the digital era, brand safety largely consisted of tangible problems like poor product placement, trademark infringement and bad press. Of course, simpler isn’t necessarily better: It was also a lot harder to target, scale and measure campaigns, and plenty of creative energy was wasted on tasks that computers can now complete for us.

1994:
AT&T debuted the first online banner ad, an early milestone in the digital marketing era. A whopping 44 percent of people who viewed the ad clicked on it. The brand safety landscape—and our lives as marketers—were forever changed.

2004:
Facebook debuts, followed in close succession by YouTube (2005) and Twitter (2006). Three years later, Facebook would become the first of the platforms to launch advertising. “Facebook Ads represent a completely new way of advertising online,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at the time. “For the last hundred years media has been pushed out to people, but now marketers are going to be a part of the conversation. It’s no longer just about messages that are broadcasted out by companies, but increasingly about information that is shared between friends.” He was right, of course, but likely even Zuckerberg couldn’t have predicted the brand safety implications of venturing into these uncharted waters.

2011:
The programmatic revolution begins in earnest, accounting for about a quarter of all digital display ad spending in the United States. While it’s hard to underestimate the significance of programmatic in opening the digital landscape to marketers, within a few short years it would also become the source of many of the greatest brand safety challenges of the modern era.

2014:
Three years later, programmatic advertising now claims half of all U.S. digital display ad spend, yet many marketers remain unaware—or uncertain of how to avoid—the looming brand safety crisis. “Up until a couple of years ago, brand safety was never something that was discussed, even remotely,” Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, told GumGum in 2017. 

2015:
In the first major brand safety catastrophe of the platform era, YouTube is found publishing ads by Toyota, Proctor & Gamble and other household names alongside ISIS recruitment videos. It wouldn’t be the last time YouTube turned YouTerrible for brand exposure: Again in 2017, 2018 and 2019, major brands including Nike, Disney, Nestle and Amazon would halt advertising on the platform due to proximity to hate speech, extremist content and child exploitation. YouTube’s failed attempts to eliminate these kinds of gaffs are symptomatic of the limitations traditional brand safety tools have in dealing with user-generated content. Without real-time, page-level monitoring of what viewers are actually seeing, brands advertising on YouTube and similar platforms will always risk flying too close to the sun: While striving for the reach and currency these sites offer, sooner or later they’re likely to get burned.

2017:
GumGum launches its first BrandRx study, and the results are eye-popping: Seventy-five percent of brands report at least one unsafe brand exposure in the past year. Common tactics for confronting the problem include whitelists and blacklists, which pre-approve (or deny) ad placements on specific sites based on their content. The study shows that half of brands and agencies use blacklists, and about a third use whitelists. While listing is effective, it lacks sophistication: Though the technique all but guarantees brand-safe placement, it comes at a steep price in terms of reach and impressions. A handful of progressive brands—about 15 percent of those surveyed—are starting to realize the potential of computer vision to scan for unsafe content before ever placing an ad.

2018:
UM becomes the industry’s first agency to appoint a brand safety officer, and other major companies soon follow suit. By deploying a combination of brand safety technology and human interventions such as developing direct relationships with publishers, the tide starts to turn in advertisers’ favor.

2019:
Marketers are finally starting to get a handle on the most acute brand safety challenges of modern times. GumGum’s second Brand Rx study indicates that while executives remain vigilant, the panic over mega-scandals has largely subsided. Instead, the focus for forward-thinkers has shifted to finding a more inclusive, nuanced approach to brand safety—one that not only embraces content left at the margins of traditional brand safety measures, but ultimately moves brands closer to their most desirable content.

2019:
GumGum launches Verity, a new AI-powered tool that combines computer vision with natural language processing for next-generation brand safety and suitability. Verity scans individual web pages for unsafe images, then analyzes on-page text to gain an understanding of the sentiments expressed and to identify objectionable words. The result? By acting as our eyes and ears, Verity offers marketers a taste of simpler times in today’s complex media landscape.

Illustrations by Hatiye Garip