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The 2 key pillars to brand safety in advertising

Kori Wallace
Content Manager

Brand Safety Series: Part One

In the coming weeks, we will be rolling out a series of blogs about brand safety and the problems facing marketers when it comes to protecting their reputation.

First up, we talk about 2 key pillars to thinking about brand safety in digital advertising. What are these pillars and how can you be sure you are building your brand safe strategy around them?

Then we’ll run through the intricacies of brand safety and subjectivity. What is safe to one marketer might not be for another, so how can we keep that in mind when building out a strategy to keep your brand safe?

For the third installment of our series, we’ll give tips on how to expand your audience reach while maintaining brand safety. Marketers do not need to worry about lost opportunities while ensuring brand safe messaging.

And to close things out, we’ll touch on a sensitive and timely topic: brand safety in the land of walled gardens. Do walled gardens ensure a certain level of security or is there really no safe place out on the world wide web?



In the world of marketing, image is important. A negative narrative does not sell products. Therefore, ensuring brand safety is a top concern for brands and advertisers.

Whether it’s a general fear—any ad appearing next to fake news, hate speech, or terrorist propaganda—or something more refined, such as an ad selling suntan-lotion products appearing next to a news story on adverse coral-reef effects from sunscreen, the potential damage to brands is very real.

Due to the continued rise of programmatic advertising, concerns surrounding brand safety are top of mind more than ever. The vast majority (78 percent) of US client-side marketers report that they’re concerned or very concerned with brand safety when buying programmatically. But because the cost-effective benefits of programmatic advertising are more than a little persuasive—better targeting, greater reach, real-time insight, paying only for relevant impressions, etc.—marketers are looking for effective solutions.

So how can marketers ensure brand safety while also taking advantage of the great benefits of programmatic advertising? The answer is twofold:

  1. Content
  2. Transparency


Programmatic: A complicated perk

Not long ago, brand safety in ad placement was a given in advertising. As long as you chose competent media buyers, there was no reason to worry that your ad would appear next to offensive content or within disreputable programming. And when the rare slipup occurred, there was someone at the receiving end of your pointing finger (who probably wouldn’t be there for long).

As print media and network television faded, that well-oiled machine broke down. The relatively small number of known and trusted ad venues was overwhelmed by an ever-increasing number of outlets—hundreds of cable television stations, millions of websites, trillions of web pages, videos, games, apps, email newsletters, and more—on television, desktop, and mobile platforms.

At the same time, massive amounts of data were collected and analyzed, offering insight that seemed to create the dream-come-true scenario of marketing to an audience of one. Then came software-driven programmatic advertising, which used that insight to deliver the affordability, efficiency, and reach needed to take advantage of the ever-expanding possibilities.

It didn’t take long to discover the dark side of programmatic marketing, as brand managers were horrified to learn that their ads had appeared alongside content that promoted fake news, terrorism, hate speech, sex, illicit drugs, illegal downloads, and other forms of violent, offensive, or illegal content. Unsuspecting consumers assumed the brands had purposefully placed their ads within distasteful content—and the reputational damage was done. 


Content is not the problem

Traditionally, it was thought that content on a webpage–a news story or an offensive video—created the brand safety problem. While this can still be the case, if we really listen, content can also contain the solution.

The definition of listening is hearing something with thoughtful attention. For brand safety, listening means actively paying attention to every word on a page, processing what the words mean in relation to other words on the page, and connecting it all to a brand’s sensitivities.

One of the trickier aspects of creating a brand safety strategy is that what’s considered safe is highly subjective. Very staid and traditional brands may adopt a no-risk approach. Quirkier, edgier brands may have a wider latitude as far as where they want their ads to appear. While an edgier brand may seem more likely to run into trouble, that’s not necessarily true.

Similarly, common brand safety blocklists have been found to be flawed when attempting to steer marketers away from certain types of sensitive content such as race, religion, and LGBTQ+. For example, a Vice investigation found that the term gay was flagged more than words such as rape, death, and heroin. Vice, a publication that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive, found this to be counterproductive to their mission as a brand and content provider.

When taking these sorts of scenarios into account, it is even more clear that brand safety all comes down to how content relates to each individual brand. 


Transparency is a must

By 2017, many brand marketers had become hypervigilant about the risk of programmatic advertising. They created allowlists spelling out where ads could appear and blocklists defining URLs that were off-limits, period. These lists gave brand managers the illusion of control and transparency.

But black-and-white thinking always overlooks the gray areas. Even the most reliable publishers might serve up content that would make a brand look foolish—for example, an ad for wine next to a story on alcoholism. On the flip side, blocklisting turned murky gray as brands missed opportunities to reach a sought-after audience because some pages within the sites contained inappropriate content, while other pages spoke directly to that market segment. 

There are plenty of sites that all or most brands want to avoid, but the vast majority of URLs offer a combination of acceptable and unacceptable content. Navigating the vast ocean of gray requires detailed definitions of the brand and its audiences to determine what falls into the okay and not-okay categories. Equally important, the same exercise needs to take place for each campaign and every ad. An ad featuring many raised hands appearing next to an article on advances in prosthetic limbs is cringe-worthy, but other brand ads might be just fine.

Advertisers face a rock-or-a-hard-place decision. If they choose the strict allowlist and blocklist strategy, they miss out on significant opportunities. If they choose a broader programmatic approach, there’s the risk that they won’t have 100 percent transparency into where their ads are appearing, or know why ads aren’t appearing in other places. In other words, advertisers have to know the rules publishers, agencies, data providers, and technology platforms use to determine if content is safe or unsafe—and who’s making those rules.

And advertisers everywhere want to see how ad success is defined, what the implications are of a context-driven approach, what’s being done to prevent fraudulent views and clicks, and how their ad response rates stack up against industry benchmarks.

Which piece of the transparency challenge is most important? All of them, according to research. A survey of 100 CMOs and marketing VPs in the UK showed that more than 93 percent choose their agencies or suppliers based on their ability to prove brand safety and transparency. The same is almost certainly true in every country around the world. 


The solution

So how does a brand ensure safety success in the rapidly evolving world of programmatic advertising? Discern behavior across a wide scope of the web, in a wide breadth of languages, and in real time.

Contextual intelligence technology brings transparency to an immediate and granular level. Instead of allowlisting or blocklisting entire URLs, brand managers can develop custom keyword blocklists to prevent ads from appearing on pages that contain keywords and contexts they wish to avoid. The technology is smart and dynamic, able to read millions of URLs and unpack all the keywords inside a page, as well as identify words and terms associated with keyword lists and update them daily. As the associated words and terms fade, they can be removed and new associations added to stay on trend.

Ensuring safe content and clear transparency when it comes to brand safety can be an overwhelming task to take on. If you’re thinking about brand safety and what it means for your brand, download our brand safety guide and learn how to move from cautious to confident in the programmatic environment.



About Kori Wallace



Kori Hill Wallace is a content specialist for Oracle Data Cloud. She loves appetizers, animals, athletics, and alliteration. (See what she did there?)

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Comments ( 3 )
  • Ranjan Wednesday, March 13, 2019
    Well explained.
  • Greg Post Thursday, October 17, 2019
    Great Info - Thanks !
  • shayur maharaj Wednesday, August 26, 2020
    This is a particularly insightful piece during a turbulent period.
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