Misguided Brand Safety Initiatives Causing More Harm
The literal same thing is literally playing out with brand safety right now. Not only is the use of brand safety tech harming good publishers like news sites, it’s actually sending more ad dollars to fake news and disinformation sites. This is so well documented now with many examples , , , , , , , . Brand safety tech blocked ads on the homepages of major news sites like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washingtonpost, etc. because certain keywords — like “coronavirus” or “BLM” – were on the page. This defunds legitimate news sites; the unspent money still has to be spent, so it flows to other sites in the programmatic supply chain, like fake news, hate speech, porn, and disinformation sites. Regardless of these tech vendors’ claims that their tech is more advanced than that, an article from today about how the zapper gun worked in the video game Duck Hunt, was blocked by a brand safety vendor, because the page contained the word “shooting” (see ad replaced by gray dumbbells below).
Insisting on using brand safety tech is harming legitimate publishers and sending more money to fake and fraudulent sites. Sound familiar?
“Brand Safety Tech is Bad News Because It’s Bad For News”
The Brand Safety Tech Doesn’t Work Well, or At All
Independent studies have shown that brand safety technologies are evidently more rudimentary than claimed — blocking ads on news sites whose pages had keywords that were on block lists. The BS technology is also labeling large swaths of mainstream sites’ pages as “unsafe” resulting in ad revenue being suppressed — e.g. “21% of economist.com articles, 30.3% of nytimes.com, 43% of wsj.com, and 52.8% of articles on vice.com are being labeled as “brand unsafe” . This is de-monetizing legitimate sites but not keeping advertisers’ ads off of fake news and disinformation sites. After all, the algorithms cannot tell what is fake news versus real news since both of them might contain the word “covid-19.” Fake news sites cleverly evade getting blocked by sticking “unsafe” words inside images, using homoglyph letters as stand-ins for normal letters , or just avoiding blocked keywords altogether. So ad dollars continue to flow to fake news sites instead of real news sites.
“Brand Safety Tech is Bad. Period.”
Brand Safety Tech is Entirely Irrelevant, If You Believe Retargeting Works
The original premise that gave rise to brand safety tech vendors was that brand advertisers did not want their ads shown next to terrorist beheading videos on YouTube. We’ve shown it is not working and vast swaths of those dimly-lit neighborhoods continue to make ad revenue on YouTube and elsewhere , despite the fact that advertisers have paid for brand safety tech. And that’s not the only problem. Let me explain.
You know what retargeting is right? It’s where the ads follow you around the internet, after you visited some site or looked at some product. In a simple example, documented in the Adalytics blog, a user visited the Harvard Business School website, and a retargeting cookie was set in the browser. The user then navigated to Russian propaganda websites like Sputnik News, and the Harvard Business School ad was displayed to that user there — because of retargeting. That means the advertiser’s brand is not going to be tarnished in the mind of the user. The user navigated to that site deliberately, sometime after visiting the advertiser’s own site. No need to use brand safety tech to block ads on those sites; the user won’t mind, and it may even be familiar to them if they see it. Remember those eye-tracking studies over the years that showed that humans are very good at not looking at the ads.
What if it’s a long-tail site with “unsafe” content? Don’t we still need BS tech to block ads there? No, don’t worry, the bots don’t mind your ads at all, and they certainly won’t think your brand was tarnished if your ad showed on the site that was paying them to create the traffic. I’ll leave you with a choice: 1) if you believe retargeting works, then brand safety is unnecessary, or 2) would you continue paying for a vacuum that doesn’t suck?
So what’s a marketer to do, once they realize they’ve been paying extra for brand safety (BS) tech that doesn’t work well, blocks ads on real news sites while facilitating ad dollars flowing to fake news sites, and is irrelevant anyway due to retargeting?
Do search ads instead! Those ads are displayed to the person that looked for them, while they are looking, and when they are staring at the screen. But this article is not about search ads. You can read more about it here: Paid Search Best Practices That Save Marketers Mucho Dollars.
In seriousness, consider whether you need to pay for brand safety detection tech. If you can change your media buying to target real news sites, good publishers sites, and “well-lit neighborhoods” in the first place, you can solve ad fraud, viewability, and brand safety issues all at once. Good publishers have low bots; they have real viewability, and advertising next to news, showing ads to humans is far better than anything else from cheap, fraudulent, fake or fake news sites. Use a very very strict include-list of domains. Buy direct as much as possible. Paying higher CPMs to good publishers will save you more money in the long run because you don’t have to pay for fraud detection, viewability detection, brand safety detection, and you can buy fewer ad impressions. You will STILL get better business outcomes, if you care about such things.