Ads Served Near Rape Among Most Common Brand-Safety Violations

More than one third of brand-safety violations on online news sites involve a publisher serving a brand’s advertisements next to content about rape and sexual assault, according to data scheduled for release this week.

“We’ve heard the buzz for years, but we’re not seeing a huge improvement in brand safety from three years ago to now,” said Guy Tytunovich, founder and CEO of Cheq.  

Brands like AT&T, Procter & Gamble, and Nestle have pulled advertising budgets from YouTube and other publisher sites on and off for the past several years because their ads continue to appear next to objectionable content.

The study -- “Bad impression: Brand-Safety Violations on Mainstream News Sites,” published by CHEQ, a cybersecurity company -- analyzes 70 global brands that collectively spend billions of dollars each year online to run advertisements.

CHEQ researchers spent three hours per brand searching for online ads served next to “inappropriate” content. The ads analyzed ran alongside 178 highly sensitive articles on mainstream publisher sites next to news stories between January 2018 and March 2019, generating tens of thousands of unsafe impressions. 

Some of the most dramatic occurrences appeared in video preroll ads, where the brand would advertise next to graphic rape stories.

It’s a catch 22. “We want to empower good press” and not stifle bad news," Tytunovich said, noting that the publishing industry continues to struggle with brand safety. “Advertisers need to band together and force the publishers to take action.”

If the industry doesn't find a solution, he said, “it will kill the internet.”

The study, in part, was prompted by a CEO at a major European airline who found the company’s ads serving up alongside an article reporting on how one of its flight attendants kicked off a cancer patient from a plane for unknown reasons.

“The CEO of this airline wanted to know if the ad appearing next to this type of content really makes a difference,” Tytunovich said. “He wanted to know if it affects brand perception and revenue, and really makes a difference. It’s easy to show the effects of fraud, but it’s never been measured for brand safety.”

That scenario prompted two research projects that aim to protect free internet content. One looked at the impact that the ads serving next to the content had on the brand, and the other analyzed the commonality of the event, meaning how often a brand’s advertisement serves up on a publisher’s site next to derogatory content.

Rape and sexual assault stories made up 34% of brand-safety violations, which involved online advertising from leading U.S. food-makers, automobile manufacturers, tech leaders, and retailers appearing next to graphic stories about rape, including sexual assaults of young children.

Ads serving up next to stories about brutal murders came in as the second-biggest violation at 29%. Thirteen were high-profile shootings in the U.S., alongside several stories with graphic details of violence. In one case, a brand that makes a family cereal advertised next to a brutal story about the "Tinder-date killer” murders that occurred during or after a Tinder date, in which the victim was strangled and dismembered, according to the report.

About 3% of cases companies advertised regular promotions next to stories “detailing unfolding crises at their own companies,” such as product recalls.

Other brand-safety issues included advertising next to natural disasters at 8%, violence at 6%, accidents at 6%, and distress at 4%.

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