Media Need Brand Suitability Standards

The Neil Young-Spotify controversy put trust and information integrity in the media headlines again last week. While some have likened Young to a lone activist investor challenging a company while the wheels of the machinery keep spinning, there is a larger long-tail effect in play.

Trust is paramount for advertisers, and they are intensifying their focus. In addition to worrying about whether their ads are next to content they find inappropriate (i.e., brand safety), advertisers increasingly consider brand suitability, which takes into account what a media partner stands for and how it applies those values throughout its business.  

That’s a profound shift from the longstanding brand safety playbook, which had advertisers steering clear of obvious objectionable content areas like guns, nudity, and violence. If a medium or provider delivered the audience within technically safe content, most turned a blind eye to anything else on the wider platform or environment. 



Now 75% of advertisers are also concerned with indirectly funding disinformation and misinformation. They’re defining suitability according to their brand and corporate values -- and two-thirds are willing to change their media buys accordingly. In fact, in 2021 more advertisers cited trust and content concerns than campaign performance issues as a primary reason for downgrading a given media platform.  

This makes information integrity a defining issue for the media and advertising industries. Scale and targeting still dominate advertiser wish lists, but they want choices to meet their definitions of ethical and responsible. So high-growth ad formats like connected TV, social media and podcasting will face increasing scrutiny as providers expand their content portfolios.

The controversy stoked over Joe Rogan’s podcast ultimately extends to all influencers, the platforms that feature them and the brands that invest in them. Advertisers will respond with heightened, ongoing scrutiny. Further, many will expand that focus to programmatic audience-based buys. 

That means media providers need bolstered brand suitability standards, and fast. Industry associations and working groups need to collaborate with buyers and sellers to update the baseline checklist with clear, concrete definitions of suitable and unsuitable content. Those guidelines need to spell out what constitutes disinformation and civic harm.

An obvious place to start is for media providers to embrace third-party verification of brand safety and information integrity. Organizations like NewsGuard, Global Disinformation Index (GDI) and The Trust Project make this more straightforward with content scorecards based on journalistic standards.

When advertisers layer on this additional intelligence, they can create URL-level block lists in addition to the keyword-based brand safety filters used in DSPs. Importantly, they can also add site inclusion lists and set them to override keyword filters in order to proactively support publishers they deem credible journalism.

When content, hosts and platforms can be objectively rated, advertisers can, individually and collectively, determine whether disinformation that causes social harm is ever brand-suitable, even if large audiences engage with it. 

The health of the digital ecosystem depends on trust, and it’s continually under fire. Advertisers and publishers can’t afford to let vagueness around brand suitability disrupt the audience engine. Enhanced shared standards for information integrity can help restore the clarity, confidence, and sustainability the industry needs.

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