Nov 23 2022
Ben Larrison

Brand Safety and Avoiding Controversy in Digital Advertising


All things considered, it’s a pretty remarkable time to be a marketer. Looking at the advertising landscape, there are more opportunities than ever to reach consumers in the right place and at the right time.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no great opportunity without risk. Indeed, there may be more ways than ever to connect with your target audiences, but there are also more ways than ever to court controversy—whether it’s an unfortunate ad placement next to unethical content, a PR slipup that goes viral, or even politically and socially treacherous partnerships that, until recently, may have been seen as safe. 

Case in point? Look no further than the 2022 FIFA World Cup. What was once a premier sponsorship opportunity that’d make any brand marketer drool is now the subject of consumer boycotts, increased scrutiny, limited press freedoms, accusations of intolerance, and a beer-battered sponsor calamity—though, unlike the 2022 Winter Olympics, no major advertisers have gone so far as to pull the plug on their campaigns during the sporting spectacle.

Then there’s the issue of hate speech and misinformation, a two-headed plague that has rattled the internet—and social media in particular—for years but has become even more pressing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing global unrest.

Take, for example, the myriad controversies surrounding Twitter. From the early days of Elon Musk's bid to purchase the social media company back in spring 2022 through his eventual takeover that October, the billionaire has touted plans to bring "free speech" to the site and do away with many of the platform's efforts content moderation efforts. After an initial effort to assuage advertisers' fears with promises of a content moderation council and a pledge that Twitter would not become a "free-for-all hellscape", Musk has proceeded to layoff half of Twitter's staff, prompt the resignation of more than 1,000 others (including its longtime Head of Trust and Safety), and reinstate controversial and previously-banned accounts. Oh, and that content moderation council? It's nowhere to be found.

The result? A number of major advertisers have paused their spend the platform, negotiations on new contracts have come to a halt, and eMarketer's Intelligence Insider has projected that Twitter's ad revenue will shrink by nearly 40% between now and 2024.

Brand safety is, unsurprisingly, increasingly top-of-mind for advertisers everywhere, but it’s of particular importance to programmatic advertisers. The automated nature of programmatic media buying lends itself to situations where, if you aren’t careful, your brand could end up placing an ad next to some very, very controversial or undesired content. 

The result could be anything from a minor uproar to widescale boycotts and long-term damage to your company’s reputation. At a time when customers have more choices than ever, and an increasing number of people say they are looking to support brands that share their values, companies quite literally cannot afford to inadvertently or carelessly involve themselves in any type of avoidable scandal.

Want to steer clear of negative headlines? Let’s take a quick look some of the ways digital marketers can protect their brands and avoid controversy.

What Digital Advertisers Can Do to Avoid Controversy

1. Prioritize Brand Safety

When marketers are crafting their messaging and placing their media buys, they’ll naturally want to focus on the important things, like how and where to engage their audience and drive new business. Unfortunately, placements next to negative content can totally undermine all that good work. 

So, how can your brand counter such risks? Well, as the old saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Or, in the case of programmatic advertising: sometimes the best defense against harmful ad placements is a proactive approach that prevents you from bidding on those placements in the first place (which, admittedly, sounds a lot less cool than “sometimes the best defense is a good offense.”)

In this Golden Age of Content, where there is far too much material on the web for any one brand or agency to adequately monitor it all, media buyers need to rely on outside solutions and integrations to help ensure brand safety. This is especially critical when it comes to programmatic advertising, as it will protect you from inadvertently bidding on any undesired impressions. Having these systems in place can protect your brand’s ads from appearing alongside undesired or even dangerous content, thus damaging your own reputation in the process. 

Partners such as Comscore, Grapeshot, and Peer39 can help advertisers tap into third-party brand safety segments upon campaign launch, enabling them to exclude sensitive content and determine placement based on criteria such as viewability, ad count on page, language, and more.

Another newer brand safety tool of note: NOBL, which bills itself as “the world’s first truly responsible programmatic advertising solution for responsible brands.” NOBL continually scans the internet looking for high-quality content, evaluating and scoring each page using NOBL’s natural language processing and machine learning algorithms. The pages that score above the minimum credibility threshold are made available, while the rest are avoided, thereby protecting media buyers from running ads next to low-quality or uncredible content.

By tapping into resources like NOBL, advertisers have an important safety net in place to help ensure brand safety.

2. Stay Agile

Whether you’re at an agency or sitting on an in-house media buying team, agility is of the utmost importance. Campaigns are most likely to succeed—and brands are most likely to thrive—when advertisers have the time and resources they need to continuously monitor and optimize their advertising efforts.

Critical to staying agile, of course, is bandwidth. When marketers have the time to make informed decisions on how and when to deploy their campaigns, they can better plan and execute on larger strategic goals—even if that means pivoting and course-correcting right in the middle of an ongoing campaign. This could involve updating creative, shifting budgets...or potentially dropping a campaign altogether (or, say, removing its assets from certain media properties) if it has inadvertently courted controversy.

One solution to the ever-pressing need for more time: automation, which can not only prevent harmful placements (as outlined above) but also help spare media buyers from tedious, repetitive tasks so they can better focus on things like strategy and creative. Studies have found that advertising automation platforms can simplify the media buying process and help marketers complete their campaign-related tasks 22% faster. That resulting increase in bandwidth can empower marketers to make quicker, more data-informed decisions about when, where, and how they want to advertise—or, in some instances, not advertise.

Brand Safety in Digital Advertising: Wrapping Up and Next Steps

Whether responding to controversy or (ideally) trying to avoid it entirely, digital marketers know how critical it is to keep brand safety top of mind. After all, failing to so can cause PR nightmares and audience perception crises that take years to overcome

Interested in learning more about responsible advertising? Check out this blog post on Basis’ partnership with NOBL, the world's first ethical programmatic advertising solution.