Brand safety measures are designed to protect brand messaging from inappropriate contextual environments. In principle, few would doubt the benefits of such protections.
In practice, the mechanisms for ensuring brand safety in programmatic environments have produced mixed results in protecting brands, while at the same time incurring costly side effects on the supply chain. Widespread dependence on third-party keyword blocking technologies has led to the blocklisting of legitimate publishers and unnecessary limitations on the flow of ad spend to their platforms, while constraining available supply and artificially inflating CPMs on the remaining inventory. Meanwhile, the largest social platforms, built on user-generated content, operate largely unchecked by these mechanisms.
The vast majority of digital budgets go to walled gardens because they deliver performance at scale and provide accessible self-serve buying and measurement capabilities at any budget. But social ad platforms are built on a mostly unregulated flow of user-generated content that creates a contextual environment that is unfit for many brands. Despite this fact, and despite the occasional boycott, social platforms are still widely considered “well lit and brand safe” ecosystems, and brands continue to rely on them. Walled gardens are largely left to police brand safety themselves, and have been slow to assume that accountability. Meanwhile, performance marketers remain doggedly on the hunt for alternatives to social platforms, many of them having already reached a saturation point in those channels, and a point where transparency trade-offs have become intolerable.
Outside walled gardens, some of the most compelling content is in the news and gaming verticals. These categories, above all others, are most consistently constrained by third-party brand safety mechanisms.
News publishers are penalized for reporting on challenging, sometimes unpleasant issues, which is their job. Earlier this year, the onset of the global pandemic led to huge surges in news readership, but CPMs actually declined because keyword blocking on terms like “COVID” and “coronavirus” diverted ad dollars away from the most-read articles. By extension, these tools kept advertisers away from some of the most meaningful opportunities to engage consumers with the right message at the right time.
Interactive sites are penalized for engaging their audience with incentives like giveaways, tokens, or virtual goods. While core to their user experience and entirely standard within the context of loyalty programs, these tangible forms of value exchange run afoul of brand safety tools and lead to blocklisting. Most brand safety vendors employ a sweeping definition for incentivization based on a 2014 IAB paper, which defines incentivization as anything that promotes users “interacting with ads through means other than the ad itself.” That is broad enough to indict any fair value exchange in which interactive content legitimately encourages users to engage with ads.
Rather than rely blindly on the third-party mechanisms baked into programmatic exchanges, brands should develop an independent understanding of what is suitable and brand safe for them. That means looking at other indicators for quality, such as whether the publisher has received Ads.txt and TAG certifications, whether they participate in IAB committees, whether they rank on comScore, or whether they have authenticated audiences from user logins. More importantly, brands should develop a direct relationship with publishers. When they do, they’ll likely find that brand safety mechanisms were keeping them away from safe and effective opportunities.
—Ariele Strauss, lead, programmatic partnerships, Publishers Clearing House