Brand Safety, Cyber Security Will Catch Ad Industry By Surprise In '21, TAG CEO Says

The advertising industry went through major changes in 2020, but none as thought-provoking as those that focused on racial sensitivity and brand safety. The changes will manifest in the ways consumers bond with brands in 2021.

“Yes, consumers will become savvy enough to avoid doing business with certain companies,” said Mike Zaneis, CEO at Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG). “Consumers are tracking along the same lines as companies across the industry during the past year or two, where we’ve become very aware of brand safety and how it can have negative implications on business.”

Security will become a more important issue, he said, as consumers and the advertising industry hear more about cyberattacks.

“The industry will be surprised at the level of criminal activity, mostly federal,” he said. “We’re involved in a number of investigations with law enforcement. It’s something our industry has largely ignored. … We really just put out small fires, but now we’re banding together as a group to create a community of firefighters.”



In the beginning of the pandemic, brands shied away from anything related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

survey conducted by the TAG and Brand Safety Institute (BSI) found that historic confluence of inflammatory events during the last year -- from COVID-19 to racial justice protests, the nation’s economic crisis, and election controversies -- dramatically elevated consumer focus on brand-safety issues, with 83% of respondents saying they were more aware of brand safety issues today than they were a year ago. The survey, conducted among more than 1,143 U.S. adults via SurveyMonkey, was fielded between November 28-29, 2020 and released December 15.

“Consumers don’t think that COVID should be a no-go zone,” he said.

Some 40% of respondents said all news coverage should be appropriate for ads. The remainder differentiated between stories involving violence and death and those about policy, societal changes, and peaceful protests on the same issues, per the findings. Consumers defined the issue of brand safety broadly, including inappropriate ad placements, ad-related malware and ads placed near pirated content.

When asked who should take responsibility to ensure that ads do not run with dangerous, offensive, or inappropriate content, 66% pointed to the advertiser, 58.9% said the ad agency, 58.5% pointed to the publisher, and 41.6% said the technology provider.

Other industries have approached their lexicon in a similar way. In a follow-up email, Zaneis described a discussion he had during dinner with his wife, who works in real estate. "Discussion about 'master suite' for the main bedroom in the house has been a point of contention for several years now, but due to the recent racial justice movement, there’s been a widespread movement to discontinue the term,” he wrote. “The common replacement is now 'owners' suite.’ In fact, there have been some systemic changes to effectuate this movement, as the industry’s primary listing system, MLS, no longer offers that as a default option."

The industry also made changes to its lexicon in 2020. For example, the terms blocklists or exclusion replaced blacklists, and inclusion replaced whitelists, as the world became increasingly sensitive to racial issues and terminology. “Developers moved away from words such as master and slave, which signified the pieces of hierarchal code that controls the other,” Zaneis said. “People don’t use those terms anymore. Brands, agencies, publishers all have scrubbed their vocabulary.”

TAG scrubbed the words from its policies and documentation for its antifraud and anti-piracy tools to ensure the company remained sensitive to all social issues.

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