When Brand Safety Goes Bad

Given the parade of high-profile brand safety fails in recent years, it’s easy to understand why marketers might be tempted to do whatever it takes to shield their brands from the fallout that invariably follows disastrous ad placements. But the dark truth of brand safety is this: An unsophisticated brand safety strategy has the potential to be just as damaging as no strategy at all. Here we examine a host of maladies that traditional brand safety methods can lead to—and how to find a balance between safety and common sense that steers your brand toward the light.

Leaving Brands Exposed
Talk about a case of the Mondays: In 2017, Hewlett-Packard execs awoke to the news that their ads were appearing on YouTube alongside lewd videos of children.  
“We are deeply troubled to learn that one of our advertisements was placed in a terrible and inappropriate context,” a company spokesperson wrote at the time. “HP has strict brand safety protocols in place across all online advertising, including YouTube, and this appears to be the result of a content misclassification by Google. It is clear that the strict policies which Google has assured us were in place to tackle offensive content are ineffective.”

As the statement alludes, it wasn’t the first time a major brand found itself sharing screen time with appalling content on YouTube, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Perhaps the scariest part, from an advertisers’ perspective? This scandal and others like it weren’t the result of indifference or inattention to the hazards of unsafe brand exposures—but rather a reliance on old-school safety measures that are behind the times, subject to error and outpaced by the sheer volume of content on the platform.

Restricting Reach
Too often, the fear of unsafe brand exposures can cause well-intentioned marketers to run at top speed toward the presumed security of the most rigid brand safety measures they can find. Blacklists? Yep. Whitelists? Sure. Limiting or avoiding UGC sites? You got it. Trouble is, each time the wagons circle a little tighter, plenty of positive potential engagements get left in the cold right along with the wolves brands are trying to fend off.

This exclusionary approach to brand safety may (or may not) result in a safer climate for a given brand—but it definitely leads to limitations on that brand’s reach and engagement. And that sacrifice, while difficult to quantify, is not without consequence. The damage inflicted by restricted reach may be a slower, more insidious type of injury than the kind a headline-making gaff can cause, but it’s no less real.

Getting Left Behind
As recently as last year, nearly half of marketers surveyed said they had taken steps to limit or avoid user-generated content sites in order to boost brand safety, and two-thirds were using blacklists to block certain sites and channels. In the current media climate (see above), it’s understandable. But by staying too far inside the lines, brands may find themselves getting overlooked by millennials and successive generations.

“While brands chase the white rabbits of traditional measurement, standard ad formats and conventional brand safety, they're avoiding their audiences’ passion points,” writes Mindshare’s Jason Smith. “And in doing so, they're risking the long-term health of their brands.”

Smith maintains that the very essence of advertising is changing right along with the way younger people consume media, and brands that fail to keep up do so at their own peril. His solution? Don’t be afraid to venture into unconventional advertising arenas like gaming, messaging and even controversial content areas.

“Figure out where your audience is spending its time and what risk you’re willing to take to reach them there,” he recommends. “Determine what the customer expects and how to maintain your brand’s core values in these passionate environments.”

Limiting Press Freedom
When maintaining a laser focus on what’s best for their brand, it’s easy for marketers to momentarily forget about the big picture. Consider this fact: Last year, 58 percent of marketers reported limiting or completely avoiding political sites or content in the interest of brand safety. Yet the unintended costs of excluding this entire category of content is borne not only by brands that miss opportunities for engagement, but by society as a whole.

“When you throw out investment from news sites, you’re limiting the workforce they can employ and so you’re really limiting free speech and freedom of the press,” Ken van Every, director of programmatic and data sales for, told GumGum. “It’s a nasty cycle there.” By quarantining political content, brands may be indirectly perpetuating the very attitudes they’re striving to avoid association with.

Seeing the Light
It’s a long tunnel, but there is light at the end. Modern brand safety products, like GumGum’s Verity, can help advertisers dodge the dangers of unsafe brand exposures without sacrificing reach, brand fitness or free speech values. Using a potent combination of computer vision and natural language processing, Verity scans sites—at page level, in real time—for images and text that brands want to avoid. Using the powers of artificial intelligence, Verity can “see” ad environments much like any human marketer would, confidently navigating the pitfalls of poor placement without forfeiting those all-important impressions. Welcome to the bright side.

Illustrations by Tishk Barzanji