In an era of heightened political awareness and division, brands are more and more sensitive to the nature of the content where their online ads are displayed. In an era of ever-increasing dominance of programmatic advertising via multiple levels of ad networks, real-time bidding, and behavioral targeting, brands have less and less control over where their ads appear.  

The tension between the desire for brands to have more control and their increasing lack of it came to light this spring in a series of news reports demonstrating that ads for major brands were appearing on YouTube, Facebook and other websites alongside various sorts of unsavory content such as pro-terrorism videos, racist content, and fake news. Many advertisers pulled their ads from YouTube and Google ad networks including AT&T, Coca-Cola and Verizon. Big brands have similarly taken measures, with mixed results, to prevent their ads from appearing through ad networks on controversial sites such as Breitbart.

For the most part, brands have embraced the premise behind programmatic advertising that ad dollars are better spent targeting specific users, rather than focusing on where those users happen to be when they are targeted. But recent studies suggest that brands have good reason to be concerned about where their ads appear since a brand’s association with inappropriate content does indeed have a negative effect on consumer perception of the brand.

In response to the original reports in March and the clamoring by advertisers for increased “brand safety”, Google immediately announced it would implement certain measures including: better policing of its content; providing marketers more information about where their ads appear; bolstering its technology that automatically screens content; and setting minimum view thresholds before a video channel can earn a share of revenue. On June 18th, Google announced additional technical and editorial measures to prevent terror-related video and content from appearing on its properties. The Wall Street Journal has reported that some of YouTube’s advertisers have returned, while others continue to stay away.

But what’s a brand to do? In print publishing and even in the prosaic banner-ad days when publishers sold display ads directly to advertisers, advertisers and publishers typically negotiated “adjacency” requirements providing, for example, contractual assurances that ads would not appear next to a competitor’s ads or next to certain types of content. The automated nature of programmatic advertising through numerous layers of DSPs and ad networks has eliminated for the most part the ability for an advertiser to negotiate these types of adjacency limitations. Instead brands and agencies should:

  • When buying through networks and exchanges, insist on white-listing (limiting ads only to preapproved channels and sites) rather than blacklisting (preventing ads from appearing on certain sites) in order to gain greater control of where ads appear;
  • Monitor ads or get someone to do it for you – leverage third party services that can track the appearance of ads;
  • Push for stronger direct reporting from networks and exchanges on the specific channels and sites where ads appear; and
  • Find out which other networks might be participating in your bidding marketplaces and where their inventory comes from.

Finally, “Brand Safety” may not be just an advertiser problem. As publishers surrender more of their ad inventory to automated networks, brand integrity could easily become a headache for them as well. While most publishers and many networks have advertising guidelines that govern the subject matter and content of ads (e.g., prohibitions against ads for guns and weapons or pornographic ads), in today’s reality, brands themselves may be toxic when they are singled out for politically objectionable actions regardless of what they are selling — think of the recent and lingering uproar in reaction to Chick-fil-A’s public stance against gay marriage. How soon will it be before a publisher is vilified for displaying a programmatically sold ad from an “undesirable” brand?