Ad technology makes it possible for advertisers to reach specific target audiences on Web pages that can hurt an advertisers’ own brand.
So now “brand safety” is the latest battle cry from our industry, but who is at war?
On one side, you have premium publishers and premium advertisers. They have more to gain when content quality and brand safety are the prevailing factors in determining where to run an ad.
On the other side sit Facebook, Google and the portals, platforms and exchanges whose success is driven by ad tech. These entities win more ad dollars when audience targeting is a bigger determining factor than content quality and brand safety.
If there is any confusion on who is winning this battle, consider: Google can’t prevent advertisers from appearing near hateful and bigoted content, Facebook can’t stop horrifically bad things from being streamed live on its site, and open exchanges have well over 2 million Web publishers you’ve never heard of, overflowing with spelling mistakes and paid ads on their pages.
The “brand safety” team is down big.
What makes this battle complex is that it’s not entirely clear on what side ad agencies sit. You’d think agencies would have to fight for the brand-safe media placements their clients are looking for, but agencies make money on margins from buying ad placements through their own trading desks. This puts them in conflict with their client’s brand-safety desires.
This battle for brand safety however, turns paradoxical when premium publishers and premium advertisers hurt their own cause.
Premium advertisers sign off on ad-tech-driven purchased impressions that follow consumers around the Web. While this tactic produces measurable consumer actions, what it doesn’t measure is the reaction ad stalking has on 99% of the people who don’t click. How can stalking consumers make them feel safe? How doesn’t their negative reaction to ad stalking affect how they feel about the publishers who are complicit?
More directly problematic is when premium publishers run open-exchange display ads and sponsored posts on their sites that are clearly in conflict with brand-safety claims.
Ads take up real estate on a Web page. Unless publishers sell each page view to one single advertiser, ad creative from different advertisers will appear within view of one another, which means they impact one another’s brand (aka the company you keep).
Here is TurboTax running a well-designed ad that shows a woman in a positive light. Across the street from this ad is a sponsored post from an advertiser, “History Things," that degrades women (You don't even have to click it to get that effect -- the picture of the woman seemingly measuring her breasts, in combination with the head -- "These Are The Most Unique Women You Have Ever Seen In Your Life" -- does that.).
You can argue that this sexist and disgraceful ad does not have any effect on the TurboTax ad, but that’s like saying a house with a broken-down boat in the backyard and a garbage-strewn front lawn, has no impact on the value of the house across the street with immaculate landscaping.
Brand safety is going to mean different things to a lot of players in our industry. Sadly, a scorecard will be needed to define what makes a site safer for premium advertisers to appear.
We will likely look at traffic sources to distinguish safety. We will look at content quality to distinguish safety. We will look at page load times. We will look at a lot of things that make online advertising less safe for premium advertisers. But we should stop looking the other way when it comes to the impact of buying and running ads through exchanges, as if somehow this action does not cause a reaction.