July 22, 2015
The Big Issue: Brand Safety

The Big Issue: Brand Safety

Mobile Marketing – Every week this July, we’ve taken one of the four biggest issues in mobile advertising right now and examining them close up. With ad blocking, viewability and ad fraud already addressed, this final piece in the series turns its attentions to the topic of brand safety.

Ad misplacement brand safety‘Brand safety’ can be used in a number of ways – most notably as an umbrella term covering ad fraud and viewability, the topics discussed in the last two pieces in this series. Most commonly, though, it refers to instances where an ad appears next to content that is inappropriate for the brand being advertised, also known as brand risk or ad misplacement.

In May, Ad Week reported that Nielsen had pulled advertising from Twitter after its sponsored tweets appeared on profile pages for ‘Homemade Porn’ and ‘Daily Dick Pictures’. And just this month, Co-op and Kuoni demanded their pre-roll ads were removed from a YouTube clip of controversial Rihanna video Bitch Better Have My Money, which is packed with nudity and sexualised violence. “This is certainly not something we would ever wish to be associated with,” a Co-op spokesperson told The Daily Mail.

Integral Ad Science reports that, of the display impressions on networks and exchanges it processed in Q4 2014, 13.7 per cent were blocked because they represented a ‘moderate or very high risk’ to brands. Those aren’t gigantic numbers – and it’s worth noting that these are impressions that didn’t get past the filtering process – but this doesn’t need to happen at huge scale to be a risk.

A single misplaced ad can have a major impact because, unlike every other issue we’ve examined in this series, this directly affects consumers.

By definition, individuals are unlikely to notice an ad that doesn’t meet viewability standards. They’ll probably even fail to notice whether it’s the wrong ad, due to an ad injector in their browser. But if someone sees an ad next to inappropriate content, and is offended? They’ll definitely remember that. Worse, these stories often get passed around between friends – and they make for great headlines.

“We’ve not just the trade press but the nationals carrying stories of big premium brands that have been seen to be running their ads on salacious content, or content which is inappropriate for that particular brand at that particular moment,” says Nick Welch, business development director at AdmantX. “That in itself is a news story, so it carries weight and it gathers momentum, and can be really damaging for a brand.”

For example, The Sun reported in April that ads for major brands including Asda, Marks & Spencer, British Gas and Nissan were appearing “on websites devoted to paedophilia, incest, bestiality and racism”.

So it’s no surprise that an IAB study in February identified brand safety as one of the top concerns for UK media agencies – but in the same survey, 22 per cent of agencies admitted to having ‘no idea’ about the topic.

Not just porn and gambling
In one way, though, brand safety is simplest topic we’ve covered in this series. After all, it’s just a case of keeping inappropriate publisher and advertiser content apart. There’s no malicious intent on the side of either party, and inappropriate content can be managed with ‘white’ lists of brand safe sites, and ‘black’ lists of sites that contain inappropriate content. As Matt Keating, UK manager for BuzzCity, puts it: “If you have all your ducks in a row as a supplier, you should not be allowing the wrong kind of ad to appear on the wrong kind of the site.”

When you look at it this way, brand safety sounds like something we should have already consigned to the history books. But it’s also one of the most complex issues we’ve examined, because it’s so subjective.

“I suspect if you lined up five brand advertisers and asked what brand safety is, you wouldn’t get the same answer,” says Phunware VP, advertising strategy, Jon Hook. “And the same is true with agencies.”

The definition of brand unsafe content is a little like pornography: you’ll know it when you see it. It’s not as simple as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sites and, according to AdmantX’s Welch, the kind of obvious clashes mentioned so far are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Salacious content is something that I think everyone needs to get some perspective on,” he says. “It’s what I’d call the first level of brand safety – no porn, no gambling – and that stuff is easy, but it’s really only a small fraction of the story. What’s really important for a brand for is avoiding content that might be carrying a negative story about that brand or industry, or even a celebrity that endorses the brand.

“Let’s say it’s a Nike campaign which is running in a sports news app which is carrying a story about the Mo Farrah doping scandal. The last thing Nike is going to want to do is run that ad against that content.”

Welch points to a couple of recent real life examples, including Pirelli Tyres. Advertising against a seemingly sensible set of keywords including ‘car’ and ‘tyre’, Pirelli found its ads appearing on stories about fatal car accidents.

“Another example is Greece,” he says. “Greece is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment because the economy’s in freefall, you can’t get any money out of the banks – and yet you have travel advertisers running ads against that coverage to travel to Greece. It might be the right time to reach that user, because they’re interested in buying a holiday, but the content is not going to have a positive impact on how that advertising message is received. They’re not going to be interested in buying a holiday to Greece while they’re reading about the banks are running dry.”

Mobile and social
In these cases, the ads are running on legitimate publishers, and the content itself may be totally fine for another advertiser. What makes it inappropriate is the particular combination of subject matter and brand messaging.

This somewhat undermines the view, common in the industry, that in-app inventory is automatically brand safe because of Apple and Google’s restrictions on their app stores. There are considerably fewer ‘salacious’ apps (to borrow Welch’s term) than there are websites, but news apps are just as likely as news sites to post stories that could be damaging to a brand – and for technical reasons, the content can be harder to analyse.

“Anyone telling you brand safety isn’t a problem in-app is lying,” says Phunware’s Hook. “Ultimately, if this wasn’t a problem, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

And it’s not just traditional news content that’s a problem, of course. Social apps, in particular Facebook, are among the biggest and most desirable sources of inventory on mobile, but they represent a flood of user-generated content over which the publisher has – or at least exercises – very little control. However, speaking at the 614 Group Brand Safety Event in May, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell claimed that this doesn’t absolve social companies of their responsibilities.

“It’s the seller’s responsibility, not the buyer’s, to make sure it’s safe,” Sorrell said. “You hear Google saying ‘we are not responsible for the content that flows through our pipes’, and I think that’s nonsense. I see Google and Facebook as media owners, not technology companies, and they have to be responsible for the content. The fact that there’s a lot of content generated is irrelevant.”

Automatic for the people
This flood of content creates an online environment that’s difficult for advertisers to navigate, which is one of the factors has contributed to the growing popularity of programmatic buying. But automating the trading process means there’s less visibility of where ads appear, which can lead to breaches of brand safety.

“Huge swathes of impressions are traded with very little information,” says AdmantX’s Welch. “The majority of the information that the advertiser might have is related to the user, and not the content on which they’re finding the user.”

“Programmatic is a fantastic tool but, like anything else, it depends on how you use it,” says BuzzCity’s Keating. “It depends on the quality of the data you’re inputting, and there’s factors around the transparency – how many middle men are in this process, what controls do these guys have along the way?

“Or even the person who’s selling directly to you – does he have visibility on exactly where the ad is running? The longer the chain, and the less visibility in that chain, then obviously the greater the chance that something’s going to go wrong.”

The first step towards improving brand safety is to make this process more transparent, and to this end, the DSTG and JICWEBS have published their Good Practice Principles for digital trading in the UK.

But for advertisers hoping to tackle brand safety head on, the best solution is working with specialist vendors. AdmantX offers semantic analysis technology that can dig into individual pages to establish whether they include any potentially damaging content. “We’re able to read and process written content using the same processes a human beings would, at scale and speed,” says Welch. This natural language processing is then used to target

They’re not the only company offering this kind of technology. Kontera, a real-time content analysis platform, was acquired by Amobee for $150m (£96m) last June. Netbase and Sprinklr offer similar natural language processing for social media.

Does it actually matter?
But before you start tackling brand safety, it’s worth mentioning one final thing that makes this topic different from the others we’ve covered in this series. While viewability and ad fraud are black-and-white issues – whether it’s down to placement or a non-human viewer, an ad that goes unseen is inarguably worthless – brand safety is in the eye of the beholder.

As mentioned earlier, identifying a case of brand risk is a ‘know it when you see it’ situation. What might offend – or even stand out – a person is likely to be different from individual to individual. And if you’re seeing an M&S ad running against pornographic content, it’s probably because you’ve chosen to visit that porn site.

“Some brands do have the mentality that they don’t really care where a person downloads their app from, as long as they use it regularly,” says Phunware’s Hook. “It’s not about the brand, it’s about finding a consumer where they hang out and where they want to engage with your content. I once worked with a big insurance brand who couldn’t get their head around advertising in anything other than a broadsheet because, ‘it’s just not where my brand should be’. Well, that’s great for you, but it’s where your audience are.”

So do brands even need to worry about this issue? It probably depends on the brand in question.

“For some advertisers, their brand is just a tightly guarded critical asset,” says Fiksu chief strategy officer Craig Palli. “If you’re a brand that really tailors to a family orientation, for example, you are going to want to be as far removed from anything controversial as is possible. Brands of this nature may seek to never have an advertisement shown in an app that they haven’t personally approved.”

Other advertisers, Palli says, are seeking “a balance of reach and safety” and are happy as long as their ads aren’t running “on any sort of nefarious content”. And there’s another group, beyond that, which are purely interested in maximising their reach.

“I’ve certainly met some marketers that suggest that what’s important is that my brand be pervasive everywhere,” he says. “For those folks, it’s much more about ‘let’s get my ad out there in as many places as possible’. Ultimately, it’s up to the brand to decide where the line that they’ll draw is – but every brand should have one.”

Source: Mobile Marketing