How disinformation is harming brand safety and straining ad budgets

February 10, 2022 | 6 minute read
Amy Gesenhues
Senior Content Marketing Strategist
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The pervasive spread of misinformation is damaging brands in countless ways. Last year, research from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) revealed conspiracy content related to COVID-19 published on nearly 500 disinformation sites generated, at least, $25 million in ad revenues between 2019 and 2021. What’s even more alarming: GDI found that as much as 15% of a brand’s ad spend cannot be accounted for within programmatic ad networks.

Meanwhile, more than 50% of Millennial and Gen X consumers are less likely to buy products from a brand if they see the brand within an ad environment they deem unreliable. The harsh reality for advertisers and publishers is that consumer trust in media is waning. According to Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, which surveyed more than 36,000 people spanning across 28 different countries, consumers trust media institutions less than they trust businesses, governments, and NGOs.

The negative impact of misinformation is not only eating up ad spend dollars, for thousands—if not millions—of businesses, it is putting their brand reputation at risk and working against brand safety initiatives.

To better understand the current crisis of distrust among consumers and how it is impacting brand safety, we talked to our own Jay Pinho, senior manager of product management for Oracle Moat.

A Q&A with Jay Pinho on brand safety

How does distrust in media organizations, combined with the lack of visibility into where digital ads are showing up, impact brand safety and business critical outcomes?  

Jay Pinho: Some of the challenges confronting media and news legitimacy are larger societal issues that everyone (not just the advertising world) is struggling to figure out right now: how to prevent coronavirus vaccine disinformation from reaching vulnerable users, how to differentiate between reputable and responsible news sources versus those that knowingly propagate conspiracies and hoaxes, and so on.

Within the world of digital advertising specifically, there are two main concerns when it comes to brand safety issues. First, marketers want to prevent their ads from showing up next to dangerous and unsuitable content. And second, as an industry overall, our goal as advertisers should be to starve these sites of ad revenue throughout the entire ecosystem.

This is an important point because, while some conspiracists start sites out of genuine but misplaced belief, much of the incentive structure for creating sites distributing disinformation actually originates from the advertising opportunity. It should be our goal as an industry to make that business model as close to impossible as we can.

One of the key things to recognize is that, if used incorrectly, brand safety and suitability products can harm this effort rather than help it. For example, when brands and agencies use broad brushstrokes like “block all politics” or “keep me away from crime stories,” all too often the outcome results in reputable news sites being blocked, shifting more revenue to the seamier areas of the Internet.

This is a shortsighted approach that leaves reputable new sites and online sources underfunded and, paradoxically, puts brands more at risk by exposing them to less reputable longer tail sites than they realize.

What specific dangers do brands face when their ad campaigns show up within harmful environments?  

Jay Pinho: There are three primary dangers when ads show up in inappropriate and unsafe environments. The first is the possibility that the end consumer may see a marketer’s ad in an unsavory environment and think less of the brand in response, thereby damaging the brand’s reputation.

To some extent this exposure is limited: In a digital space—as opposed to linear television for example—users fully control what they are viewing at any given time. If they see an ad in an inappropriate environment, it’s usually because they decided to visit the website.

Another concern is that a misplaced ad could end up featured in a news article or tweetstorm as a cautionary tale of brands that are not being careful about where they invest their ad budget.

Finally, marketers worry that their advertising could be inadvertently monetizing publishers that are low-quality at best and scammy at worst. This is a very real danger, especially when coupled with the fact that a dollar spent on these sites is a dollar that would have been better spent on a local, regional, or national news site or similar environment with editorial guardrails and a commitment to producing responsible media.

When it comes to brand-safe environments, what can publishers do to help ensure their content is not putting advertisers at risk?

Jay Pinho: When done right, brand safety and suitability should naturally elevate high-quality publishers. Much of this comes down to the continual need for verification providers, such as Oracle Moat, to continue to improve our capabilities and ensure the technology is doing its job. (For example, not conflating responsible news coverage of a court case with actual dangerous content that should be avoided.)

A lot of the brands that are most cautious online still spend millions annually on TV news channel ad placements, which often include more graphic and unsettling content than what you would see on a major news site anyway.

To that end, a publisher would do well to play an educational role with their demand partners, showcasing the empirical value of high-quality content through research and case studies. They can also point to the emerging Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) tiered brand safety standard as a new opportunity for brands and agencies to be more specific and granular in filtering unsafe content.

Another step publishers can take: package their own inventory in innovative ways, not only in terms of brand safety and suitability but also with respect to contextual or vertical categories.

What’s the biggest misconception when it comes to adtech in terms of safeguarding digital ad campaigns against potentially unsafe ad environments?

Jay Pinho: One of the biggest misconceptions over the years, which fortunately is becoming less common nowadays, is that simple keyword lists are the right approach to avoiding unsuitable environments. Keyword-only technology is all too often a hammer looking for anything that resembles a nail. It is a blunt approach that blocks tons of perfectly suitable inventory, driving up media costs and reducing scale. It also lulls marketers into a false sense of security by promising safety via technology that is not designed to deliver brand safe environments.

A second misconception is that news, even hard news, is bad for brand safety. This theory is belied by the fact that some of the largest global advertisers routinely run commercials on television news programs and have for years. It also ignores the more pernicious dangers of showing ads on sites that haven’t been properly vetted or filtered, such as disinformation sites. Any verification product that doesn’t account for the always-evolving disinformation ecosystem isn’t ready for primetime.

Achieving brand safety and suitability is an important part of any digital strategy, but it’s important to recognize that technology is only one part—albeit an important one—of ensuring positive outcomes. Understanding your own risk tolerances and sensitivities is key to unlocking inventory and taking advantage of competitive opportunities left untouched by less savvy marketers, agencies, and publishers.

What actions can advertisers take that will have an immediate, positive impact on their brand safety efforts?

Jay Pinho: First, audit your current brand suitability strategy, if you have one. What are the risks you are most concerned about? What are the opportunities unique to your situation that can give you a competitive edge relative to your peer set? Be aggressive about questioning unspoken assumptions: Much of the conventional wisdom around brand safety and suitability is stale and doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.

Once you have a proposed strategy, start evaluating verification partners that can help you achieve it. Do they support the GARM tiered brand safety standard? Do they allow you to fully customize suitability categories end-to-end in pre-bid and post-bid blocking, and even reporting? What level of transparency do they provide? Can you get individual, impression-level reporting on unsafe exposures, or do they only report on aggregate roll-ups by site or campaign? These are important questions your ad verification partner should be able to answer.

Lastly, take full advantage of your verification partner’s non-tech offerings. A partner that provides a thoughtful, consultative approach—one that considers an individual brand, agency, or publisher’s unique needs and circumstances—will drive significantly better outcomes than a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach.


Are you searching for new approaches to help protect your brand reputation without sacrificing campaign performance? Download Oracle’s “Brand Safety, Suitability, and Responsible Media: A guide for digital advertisers” to learn how you can strengthen your ad campaigns while simultaneously protecting your brand from harmful ad environments. 

Amy Gesenhues

Senior Content Marketing Strategist

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