The Gap Between Real and Perceived Brand Safety Issues

The discussion around brand safety has risen from a murmur to a prolonged roar, and it doesn’t seem to be quieting down anytime soon. In part, that’s because more issues and more sub-threads keep getting pulled into that discussion. My colleague Gavin Dunaway wrote a bit about this recently, and Hulu’s Adam Moser will be talking about it at the upcoming Publisher Forum in Huntington Beach, too. There’s a lot more to brand safety than contextual placements, and complicated problems might call for complicated solutions.

We can see how these issues are playing out in a report GumGum just released, in conjunction with Digiday Media, “The New Brand Safety Crisis.” For starters, the report shows the scope of the problem: 75% of brands say they had experienced at least one brand-unsafe incident in the last year. While 70% of media and marketing professionals say they’re taking brand safety “seriously or very seriously,” many are still new to applying solutions—less than a quarter of respondents said they’d been using brand safety solutions for more than two years.

One thing that became clear while reading through this report is there’s a disconnect between perceived brand safety problems and actual brand safety problems. Marketers said hate speech, porn and violence were the most brand-unsafe environments their ads could be placed in. But when they were asked what kind of content their ads were placed near when someone rang the “brand-unsafe” alarm, they cited “disaster/tragedy,” “divisive politics” and “fake news” above anything else. (Those three categories came in at a three-way tie, each encountered by marketers in 39% of their brand safety scares.)

So in other words, setting aside worst-case scenarios and honing in on lived experiences, the environment marketers find the most brand-unsafe is… the news.

Real Talk About Real Talk

You know things are dire when people affiliated with ad tech start talking openly about politics, especially if they haven’t had a few drinks first. And I was struck by how often the GumGum report named names when it came to political content: It cited Breitbart and InfoWars as environments a number of brands would consider brand-unsafe, and it names President Trump as part of why advertisers are wary of hard news. But it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about brand safety that completely ignores politics. Ross Torossian, CEO of 5W Public Relations, is quoted in the report: “People today buy on belief.” That’s hard to argue. Consumers care about what a brand’s name communicates about their own values. Sometimes that’s more important than the quality of products themselves.

One of the more subtle takeaways of this report is that it’s about time to re-adjust brand safety expectations. It used to be that sex, drugs and alcohol were seen as red flags for brand safety. Now politics, violence and fake news are in the mix. Is it because the tech is making us dumber or lazier or greedier about reach? Is it that major platforms have become over-reliant on automation? Maybe a bit. (Facebook, for one, probably is over-reliant on automation.) But it’s also because more brands and marketers are seeing more existing environments as being brand-unsafe.

The report suggests that maybe it’s time brands learn and practice troll management, rather that avoid every environment that might produce strong negative opinions among consumers. That’s one takeaway that feels actionable—even though it would have to be pretty manual. Outrage is part of day-to-day digital life, and it’s difficult to train an algorithm to determine when outrage is real and when it’s a put-on, a bandwagon-jumping.

But we’ve run out of time waiting for everyone on the internet to calm down and be civil. Hard news can be heavy and divisive. But people read it and watch it, and if they’re up in arms about it, that suggests they care about it. For brands and marketers, is it worth it to bypass an engaged audience just to avoid the haters? What’s more time-consuming, avoiding social media backlash, or scaling campaigns around an increasing number of no-go environments? Publishers already have a role mediating that discussion with their audience. Hopefully they’re making their advertiser partners aware of the work they’re doing on that front. It’s not easy bracing yourself for backlash, but it’s easier when you know you’re in good company.