‘Media responsibility is now corporate social responsibility’: Marketers reassess brand safety controls to navigate a divided America

political advertiser tension

Over the next few hours, marketers across the U.S. will be watching the events of Inauguration Day closely, ready to pause, tweak or block ads from appearing against problematic content should things go sideways. While some marketers will stick to blunt tactics like blocking ads from news sites entirely, many are turning to more nuanced strategies that also ensure their dollars support quality journalism. Desperate times call for accurate measures.

Of course, there will always be those marketers whose first response in any crisis is to steer ads clear of news — media owners be damned. It happened when rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington D.C. earlier this month. But often, those were short, precautionary pauses and the ads were back on the same sites within 48 hours. Brand suitability strategies are showing signs of strain, but not panic.

“Ahead of the inauguration, we’re advising clients not to rely on keyword lists and instead take a more considered approach to where they invest in media to protect their brands,” said Joshua Lowcock, global brand safety officer at Universal McCann.

Emphasis on “considered.” Keyword blocklists are increasingly part of rather than the crux of brand suitability strategies.

In fact, Universal McCann execs are telling clients to run rather than block as many ads as necessary around the inauguration so long as they buy ads from either lists of approved sites and words or private marketplaces of premium inventory. Before those ads are bought, they’re mapped against a calendar of all the events related to last year’s presidential election, from the day the ballots were confirmed to the middle of next month. The message is clear: prepare for the unexpected.

Other agencies are sending similar messages, including Dentsu, Havas and GroupM, by encouraging clients to be proactive, not reactive, to unsuitable content in and around the inauguration.

“Brand safety technology helps but there’s a more nuanced issue around suitability at play here that just having an exclusion list won’t address,” said Michael Law, president of Dentsu International’s Amplifi. “We’re talking to our clients about the context of their ads as much as we do those brand safety mechanisms.”

Behind the scenes, these discussions are forcing advertisers to think long and hard about whether cheap ads matter more than being responsible.

“There was a concern that being stricter about where ads run could throttle reach and subsequently increase the cost of media whereas now we’re having conversations on why protecting people and doing the right thing matters,” said Lowcock. “Clients are starting to think about media responsibility in the same way they do corporate social responsibility.”

A year ago things were very different.

When the first wave of the coronavirus was at its peak, keyword blocking was widely used by marketers to avoid swathes of subsequent negative news. The downsides of relaxing that stance were too steep for those marketers at the time.

But the more those marketers used keyword and contextual targeting to keep their ads safe, the more suspicious they became. After all, marketers are still finding their ads on problematic sites. From October 2020 to mid-January 2021, 1,688 advertisers ran 8,776 unique ads on sites flagged in NewsGuard’s Election Misinformation Tracking Center for publishing fake news and conspiracy theories about the election. If brand suitability is a pyramid, for marketers, it is one with the steepest of peaks.

“There’s a lot more information on where is and isn’t acceptable for ads to run channeling down from advertisers where the client is involved in the email threads around media plans,” said Peter Wallace, managing director of EMEA at GumGum, an ad tech company that specializes in contextual advertising. “Previously, that guidance would’ve come from the agency.”

Now comes the hard part: Constantly curating where ads appear to ensure that they’re always somewhere suitable in a divided U.S. A lot could still go wrong.

“The majority of our clients took the opportunity to pause activity on social media and respond to this month’s terrible events, and their intentions are to continue to follow suit for the period around the inauguration,” said  Andrew Goode, head of biddable media at North America at Havas Media.

Dentsu has shared the same concerns with its own clients. As Law explained: “We’ve made recommendations to our clients that they take their ads down on social media during the events that happened earlier this month and we’ve maintained that same recommendation through to this week.”

Social networks, not news sites, are front and center of a conversation around the pitfalls of marketing to a divided community given they now echo chambers for political and ideological views. Even so, the tools that are available to marketers like semantic technology blocked content based on term frequency. So if the word “battle” is on a blocklist, it blocks war clips, but it also blocks songs from Disney’s Frozen musical where “battle” is one of the lyrics in the metadata. The nuance just doesn’t work without greater precision. No wonder marketers are trying to push the likes of Facebook and YouTube to do more. 

Essentially, these demands come down to transparency: Each advertiser’s definition of brand safety and suitability varies, so they’re demanding granular controls to ensure that their ads run adjacent to contextually relevant content that is suitable for their ads. They are not just looking for post-campaign data, but visibility into the quality of the media they are running in mid-flight to optimize their spending. Candid, off-the-record conversations with media buyers reveal marketers are cautiously optimistic about concessions from the social networks.  

“We’re seeing longer-term thinking from brands with less reliance on semantic blocklists, and more focus on human cognition to inform content decisioning,” said Rich Raddon, co-CEO of Zefr, a contextual data company with brand suitability tools for YouTube and Facebook.

By all the main measures — marketer sentiment, sophisticated media strategies, publisher feedback — attitudes toward brand safety are maturing, from a dire place. But that does not yet mean everything will be resolved soon. 

“This month’s events at the Capitol further highlighted marketers’ need for precise brand suitability tools to navigate the complex U.S. media landscape,” said Integral Ad Science’s CEO Lisa Utzschneider in an email. “We continue to have important discussions with marketers about the shift to contextual targeting and how this can be even more effective for them.”


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