Safety vs suitability - where does the line lie?

07 May 2019  |  Tim Elkington Denise Turner 
Safety vs suitability - where does the line lie?

In their quest for brand safe environments, are advertisers erring too far on the side of caution? The IAB and Newsworks have partnered to open up the debate

It’s where you’re seen that counts, or so the old adage goes. For some, this probably brings to mind the window seat at whichever restaurant is currently taking critics by storm, mingling with famous faces at an exclusive bash or session hopping at Cannes. For our purposes, unsurprisingly, it’s all about advertising. And when it comes to digital ads, where you’re seen most definitely counts.

More than ever, brands are attuned to where their online campaigns are appearing - and rightly so. Ensuring that digital ads are placed in brand safe environments is a fundamental priority and one that industry bodies are wholly committed to, whether together through JICWEBS DTSG or individually through initiatives like the IAB’s Gold Standard.

But in their quest for brand safe environments, are advertisers erring too far on the side of caution? As an industry, are we blurring the lines between safe and suitable? And, by defining context in terms of possible hazards, what impact is there on advertisers and quality publishers?

Keyword block lists and content verification tools have become a central component when it comes to digital advertising, identifying unsuitable environments and making sure that advertisers don’t appear next to content deemed inappropriate for the given brand. In the offline wold, this has been established practice for years – think of an airline ad next to news of a plane crash or a homewares offer around a feature on homelessness. It’s just common sense, right?

However, with the growth of programmatic marketplaces, automating the process of eliminating unsafe environments has become necessary. In principle, this makes sense and can be very successful at ensuring ads are served in an appropriate context.

But current practice is also resulting in a fair amount of collateral damage. Overzealous use of content verification tools is leading to content on premium publishers’ sites being automatically ruled out without an understanding of the detail, the nuances and the context of the editorial.

As a result, brands are steering clear of advertising around big news stories on publishers’ sites because they don’t want to be associated with the editorial – whether that be a natural disaster, crime case or Brexit turmoil. Let’s face it, big news is often bad news.

Yet new neuroscience research, conducted by Neuro-Insight for Newsworks, shows that although readers know there’s a difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news, their subconscious brain responses are almost the same, with no adverse effect on their feeling towards the ads featured. 

Fundamentally, people understand that they are consuming professionally curated content within a quality environment and via an established publisher brand. The surrounding ads are viewed through this lens.

Compounding the issue with current practice, an over reliance on keyword blocking can lead to perfectly harmless content being flagged as inappropriate.

Take, for example, an article in The Guardian about the World Chess Championships (a frontrunner for the least violent of sports) which was flagged for violent content: Magnus Carlsen thwarts Game 5 ambush in draw with Fabiano Caruana

Or a Harper’s Bazaar article about the Duchess of Sussex, ruled out for adult content because of the ‘sex’ in HRH’s title: The Duchess of Sussex made a sweet gesture on yesterday’s walkabout

Just as Ezoic’s CCO John Cole said at Mediatel’s Publisher’s Conference last November, there are “nuances that you can’t put in a tick box… perfectly safe websites can be wiped out because of a key word”. Accordingly, advertisers are missing out on an opportunity to reach engaged eyeballs in a premium environment and publishers are struggling to monetise their journalism. For the sake of both, this needs to change.

So how? The easy thing to do would be to point the finger of blame at the providers of key word blocking tools, or to chastise advertisers for using them incorrectly. Neither option is particularly fair or likely to be productive. The tool providers are required to follow client direction rather than independently judge, while advertisers are acting out of an understandable desire to avoid inappropriate placement.

To move forward on this issue, collaboration is essential. Which is why IAB UK are bringing together Newsworks, ISBA and the AOP plus all relevant stakeholders, to debate, learn and instigate change at a townhall on 23 May. By joining forces, we hope to create a set of best practice guidelines to help advertisers remain brand safe and to help publishers effectively monetise their professionally produced, quality content.

Rather than being solely focused on avoiding environments, let’s make sure we – as an industry – are embracing the benefits that come with being aligned with premium publishers. It’s time to find the balance between safety and suitability.


Tim Elkington is Chief Digital Officer, IAB UK; Denise Turner is Insight Director, Newsworks

If you are interested in attending the townhall event, contact the IAB here.

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DraytonBird, Founder, Drayton Bird Associates on 8 May 2019
“The phrase "brand safe environments" followed by the cliche "erring too far on the side of caution" tells you why most advertising puts people to sleep. Safe boring cliche's and let's not offend anyone. Great for putting people to sleep; shit at selling. How often do people churning out this kind of guff ask about return on investment? And how many have ever had to put up their own money to advertise and sell?”
TimElkington, Chief Digital Officer, IAB UK on 8 May 2019
“It’s a good point Nick and the reason we’re getting together on 23 May is to work out exactly how we do this. Coming together as an industry is the first step towards exploring the issue further and finding a solution. We should have more to report on this after the townhall so stay tuned.”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 7 May 2019
“Automated keyword blocking - also known as the 'Scunthorpe' problem...

Your point about safety vs suitability is perhaps the crux of this dynamic, and it's a nuance that's missing in much discussion about ad placement. But it's tough to argue the difference to a brand marketer, that even if a particular setting is unsuitable, it's still brand-safe. How might you position that to a sceptical marketer?”