How safe is brand-safe?

09 May 2018  |  David Brennan 
How safe is brand-safe?

There is a new and looming threat to brand safety which is possibly more insidious and longer lasting than anything we've seen before, writes David Brennan

I was recently asked to chair a panel session at Ad Week on brand safety and it has got me thinking.

This is a topic I find myself drawn to from time to time, but rarely in too much depth. Apart from the occasional name-and-shame from advocacy groups such as Stop Funding Hate, much of it tends to occur in the hidden and murky shadows of the web, invisible to the industry. Much like Cambridge Analytica’s targeting of political attack ads, brand safety occurrences are generally “unattributable and untrackable”.

Part of the problem is that ‘brand safety’ can mean different things to different people. My initial assumption for the Ad Week panel was that we were going to focus on the narrower definition in terms of the risk to brands’ reputation or equity when placed adjacent to unacceptable or inappropriate content.

To many marketers, however, this is part of a wider definition of ‘safety’ linked to issues such as ad fraud, viewability and faulty metrics. During a recent discussion at a Campaign event, Lou Paskalis of Bank of America described three elements of their strategy to keep their brands safe in a riskier digital landscape; ensuring a good customer experience, getting a fair return on their advertising investment and managing their brands’ reputation. So, something more far-reaching than advertising around ISIS beheading videos and Katie Hopkins’ morality-free word-spews.

In our Ad Week session, we began with that wider definition. Stephane Coruble - MD of RTL AdConnect - showed some fascinating differences in industry perceptions of the importance of brand safety, compared to ad fraud and viewability, in different European markets.

Brand safety ranked highly in the German and the UK markets, but barely featured in France. (It was suggested that was because the French don’t have a word or phrase to convey ‘brand safety’ and are reluctant to take the anglophone alternative).

But we were led back to the narrower definition of brand safety by Johan Boserup, global CEO of Group M Trading. He pointed out that most of the issues faced by the ad industry are binary - they either happen or they don’t. Brand safety is anything but; it is subject to nuance and context and interpretation.

Which means we’ll probably never eliminate it completely.

(He also pointed out that the concept of brand safety is nothing new; it was a concern in the analogue days, when run-of-schedule TV campaigns in many European countries could find themselves surrounded by 3am porn programming).

There were several positive themes to come out of the session. The importance of curation – acting like a publisher rather than a platform – was stressed by both of our content-publisher contributors. That said, they were also keen to point out that the platforms (especially YouTube) are getting better at working in partnership with their publisher partners to promote brand safe environments.

It was also encouraging to hear that exercising these editorial values will always require a human touch – at least for the foreseeable future – and the role of AI and machine learning can only stretch so far.

So, within the established definition of brand safety – avoidance of brand placement around unacceptable or inappropriate content – things appear to be improving.

But there is another looming threat to brand safety which is possibly more insidious and potentially longer lasting. The threat to all advertising communications as the traditional trust in the honesty, truthfulness, decency and legality of advertising content comes into question.

This was thrown into sharp relief by the recent announcement of Martin Lewis, the founder of MoneySavingExpert, to sue Facebook for damages relating to at least 50 different ads on the site that had used his (fictional) endorsement to promote their own financial offerings.

Apparently, individuals have lost six figure sums on some of these schemes, but Facebook is insisting it’s ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy of only banning such ads when they are flagged by interested parties such as Mr. Lewis continues to be their only viable solution.

Since the threat, a number of other celebrities have broken cover to complain that their endorsement of products advertised online has been fraudulently claimed. Two members of ‘Dragon’s Den’ were falsely claimed to endorse similar financial scams to those identified by Lewis.

You would think Facebook would be especially sensitive to this issue as Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, has also been falsely represented as having endorsed a skincare product.

This is a much more insidious threat to brand safety than those headline-grabbing cases of brands appearing beside extremist or unacceptable content.

In the short-term, any brand advertising on the platform could have an extra level of consumer scepticism applied to their claims (no bad thing), especially in areas such as finance, travel, healthcare, beauty and luxury items.

In the longer-term, it could spill over into the highly-regulated traditional media, which have been built on the promise that no advertising appearing on their platforms can be anything other than honest, decent, legal and truthful. Why should consumers believe anything once they’ve been scammed out of thousands of pounds by what appeared to be ‘proper’ advertising?

Advertising has traditionally been tolerated and accepted on the basis that we can trust its content. That trust has been built up over decades of good governance and effective regulation. The fact that outrageous claims and fraudulent endorsement on a host of advertised products on the world’s biggest ad platform are allowed to fester until they are eventually flagged might be the biggest threat to brand safety of all.

David Brennan is co-founder of BE Insight

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