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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.