Competitor Adjacencies: Brand Safety's Unexpected Foe

Every brand marketer is painfully aware that toxic adjacencies sit at the tender core of the brand safety issue. The complex equation of limited premium content combined with digital automation makes safe ad placements more like a shake of the dice than the sure bet they used to be.

Just last year, major platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were considered the epicenter of the brand safety crisis. But now that perception –– at least for Twitter and Facebook –– seems to have changed.

Fingers continue to point blame in every direction, including at the social media giants, but recent data suggests that marketers consider publisher sites the most troubling source of brand-unsafe environments. As they do on major social platforms, publisher safety risks caused by negative adjacencies are a function of the sheer volume of images, video, and text that cycle through the publishing environment.

Interestingly, among the numerous forms of negative adjacency, marketers have recently expressed less concern about adjacency to overtly unsavory content –– vulgarity, hate speech, violence, nudity, etc. –– than with adjacency to competitor logos, digital signage images or video clips, and competitor text that might undermine the impact of a campaign.



This is an unexpected sentiment, since conquesting –– where brands deliberately seek ad adjacency to publisher content that features a rival –– is a fairly common online marketing tactic.

Whether a competitor adjacency is considered negative or not depends on whether it’s intentional. Accidental competitor adjacencies compromise marketer and brand client trust. After all, brands spend decades building relationships with consumers that share core values, and when another brand intercedes in that relationship, consumers loyalties are tested.

Of course, it’s never an unpleasant competitor adjacency that makes brand safety headlines. The adjacencies that make headlines –– like YouTube’s recent comment board pedophlia scandal –– have defined our industry’s response to brand safety writ large. And that’s why many more marketers now feel that the ad industry has a firmer grasp on brand safety –– despite the fact that brand safety scandals continue to hit the industry where it counts.

What’s clear is that marketers have become savvier about what, where, and why threats exist, as well as about the role that programmatic can play in putting brands in potentially unwanted publisher scenarios. There is also greater awareness of the assortment of potential cures ––including AI-powered solutions –– that  can be applied to safety scourges, depending on brand client needs, past experiences, and future concerns. Improvements to the brand safety landscape can also be traced to the fact that many brands and agencies over the last 12 months have hired specialists specifically dedicated to assessing and preventing brand safety incidents.

For all those reasons, the industry is gaining ground on negative adjacencies overall.  It may actually be thanks to that ground gained that competitor adjacencies have emerged as a more glaring brand safety threat.

Competitor adjacencies tend not to be flagged by traditional brand safety tools, which focus on identifying clearly inappropriate online content. The relatively innocuous-seeming competitor adjacency has become a more prevalent and insidious brand safety threat because marketers see that its brass-tacks impact –– lost consumer trust and revenue –– may actually rival the more obvious negative adjacency, involving overtly offensive content, that lead to social media blowback, bad press, and even boycotts.

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