The brand safety problem is bigger than the news cycle — and so are the solutions

Brand safety has become the central theme for digital marketers in the first half of 2017. Ever since advertisers began yanking their ads from YouTube earlier this year (what amounted to 5 percent of its total advertisers), all corners of the digital ecosystem took notice.

When brands like Mercedes started pulling their dollars from Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal, it became clear that the issue of brand safety was more than just another controversy confined to digital marketing, and that the topic was going to last beyond the fleeting memory of a 24-hour news cycle.

Brand safety is much bigger and deeper than can be possibly addressed in a single spring, a single news cycle, or even a single era of marketing. Adjacency and context are today and have always been spotlight issues to ad-supported media, regardless of the media format or the technology used to monetize it. This is a structural problem of paid media, to which there are no quick fixes.

As an industry, we’re in this for the long haul.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped some from attempting a quick fix. YouTube swiftly eliminated ads for accounts with fewer than 10,000 followers. Google began to use AI to target specific sites that were deemed brand-unsafe.

Facebook started to ramp up censorship of its “Facebook Live” product (after it live-broadcasted a murder), following its early moves against fake news sites. And, of course, O’Reilly was unceremoniously removed from Fox.

Problem solved?

For investors and non-industry folks looking in from the outside, the short answer is: yes. Despite initial fears, media investors easily brushed aside the brand safety story circling these platforms as a small episode, after the issue failed to put a measurable dent in stellar Google and Facebook earnings. The brand safety “crisis” exploded, waned and vanished within a single quarterly news cycle — just a blip on the radar amid continued dominance from the duopoly.

No time to be complacent

The question now is whether we in the digital advertising industry are going to follow the same path. Advertisers and the supply ecosystem cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to brand safety.

This is not solely an issue with technology — it is a foundational problem requiring enduring vigilance among all parties involved. The advertising community needs to be putting constant pressure on its partners, and the supply stream needs to respond to these pressures with solid long-term solutions, not quick fixes.

There’s reason to believe recent quick fixes like that of YouTube’s were not effective for the long term. YouTube might have pleased Wall Street, but they financially hurt a lot of the platform’s own creators. Tucker Carlson replaced O’Reilly, but the harassment allegations that toppled O’Reilly continue to mount within Fox News.

As long as brand safety presents itself as a PR crisis, the industry’s concern risks being too fleeting, and the response to those concerns risk being too draconian, too superficial or both. Brand safety is an ongoing issue that needs to be thought about as part of every campaign, as part of every innovation in media technology, and as part of every new hire on-boarding in television, radio or any media format.

We need to understand brand safety less as a problem that we can solve and more as a challenge that we must constantly tackle anew. With such a perspective, the necessary work on the hard, technical, incremental solutions that will increase transparency and safety for marketers might be given the patience and persistence they deserve.

Take brand safety seriously. But treat any silver-bullet solution with skepticism.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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