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It’s hard to turn on the TV these days and not see something about covid-19. As a marketing man, it’s almost oddly reassuring when the break kicks in and the ads give us a reminder of the normal world we knew just a few weeks ago. I could say the same for the newspaper, heavy going as a lot of the coverage is there’s something oddly reassuring about the presence of the adverts among it.

The show must go on after all. It’s going to be a very tough time for businesses but hopefully, most of them will be able to see light on the other side, as will the newspapers and media titles helping share their messages. As an ad industry, I hope we’ll pull together to support one another and the other sectors far more badly impacted by the virus over the coming months.

It’s no easier to avoid online of course. Twitter is brimming with live updates, Facebook is helping us stay in touch, Tik Tok keeping us entertained, and LinkedIn is full of terrible hot takes on the lessons we can all definitely not learn from it. The odd thing, however, is that in these spaces many of the ads are missing. When Marc Guldimann logged onto the Wall Street Journal he was surprised to see the prime masthead spot taken up by... some clouds?

For those who don’t know, this isn’t a promo for the Weather Channel, but the ‘filler’ image the Double Verify verification technology uses when an advert that was about to be served decides at the last minute it doesn’t want to be there (see tweet above). One of the main reasons for that is the detection of perceived brand safety violations, though it can happen for other reasons such as suspected ad fraud or where incorrect targeting has occurred. In most instances, the advertiser will be able to avoid paying for that impression and, in principle, has swerved a potentially dangerous position for themselves.

The front page of one of the most respected newspapers in the world however isn’t really the kind of environment you need to be swerving is it? Quite the opposite, it’s prime real estate we should be fighting over. And the clouds being there means the publisher most likely hasn’t been paid for Marc’s visit, eating away at their already tough business model. It’s an over-simplification of course, but the reality is we’ve ended up in a very distorted world where online properties are playing to very different rules of brand safety than traditional media is. Rules which not only potentially limit the reach and impact of our brands, but also directly threaten the economics of journalism, the production of high-quality content and the ability for diverse voices to be heard. Weirdly, given the original intention, these decisions play right into the hands of a messy and low-quality internet filled with celebrity plastic slideshows and reshaped memes - pages designed to ace viewability and brand safety tests even if the user experience is awful and the content vapid and recycled.

Brands are right of course to have brand safety settings and software in place. I’m a director of the Conscious Advertising Network and hugely passionate about us clamping down on the darkest parts of the internet and ensuring we’re not funding those. Without brand, safety approaches the absolute worst of the internet can get funded, including hate speech, terrorism and misinformation. You absolutely need settings so you don’t accidentally sponsor fake news spreading lies about the current pandemic and how to react to it. It’s fantastic that brands have woken up to this and are starting to act. We’re not here to blame the tech platforms either, though perhaps they could do more to advocate on this topic and to reshape their defaults. Ultimately, they create tools that allow advertisers to control their exposure but it’s up to the advertiser and their agency to decide how to use them and how to implement them.

Long keyword blocklists are a choice, and having a list with 1000s of words you can’t keep track of is probably a bad one. It’s arguably not the best placement for most brands to appear next to a breaking news story about a terrorist attack, but it’s infinitely better to appear there than it is to appear on content which accidentally funds and supports the terrorist’s cause itself. No one is actively funding coronavirus but by putting it on your block lists you are effectively taking funding away from almost half the Internet. To be clear I’ve totally made that stat up, but certainly, a lot of traffic at the moment is touching on the subject. As advertisers, we need to adopt a more sophisticated approach to brand safety. We need to take a step back from the cliff edge of panic that some bad cases have pushed us towards and have a clearer mindset around what represents a true brand safety issue & what represents a perfectly reasonable placement.

Consumers understand that adverts and content are separate, they have realised this for 100 years. Except in the most unfortunate misplacements (an airline advert casually alongside the story of a crash for instance), there really is very little actual brand safety issue on high-quality sites. For me that means brands need (at least) two lanes of safety settings. If you’re bidding on the vast open web then, of course, you need a long and stringent list of words and contexts you want to avoid, it’s a scary and weird place out there with all sorts of bad actors and adjacencies to avoid. Yet if you’re working with high-quality content, with reputable publishers and networks which curate proper journalism or diverse voices then different standards need to be applied. Here it’s less about writing a list of generic naughty words (sex, attack, covid-19) and more about thinking of category-specific considerations what might jar in the consumer’s mind. If you’re advertising chocolate obesity is probably one to avoid. Alcohol companies can steer clear of drink driving stories, Disney videos or pregnancy tips. On the other hand, the word ‘attack’ sounds scary but gets featured in huge amounts of sports coverage, Frozen might be a Disney kids film but it’s also relevant to a range of adult cocktails.

Within news websites the front page, with a wide variety of potentially keyword triggering articles, is about as quality as placement as you can get and, on all but the most extreme of national news days, a perfectly reasonable place to be. There is perhaps a golden circle of brand safety reserved for spots like that, and then other layers based on how much you can trust a publication, or how deep into their system you will appear. Social networks and UGC platforms like YouTube bring their own challenges and need specific solutions of their own. Look for quality networks, quality publishers, quality platforms can give you all this. In these challenging times please look for ways of scaling reach across smaller quality publications and across diverse and minority voices who won’t be there at the end of it if we abandon them. There are well-established stats showing that even on a good day as much as three-quarters of positive and safe content mentioning the LGBT community can be demonetized by some advertisers using broad block terms like ‘lesbian’. These are unlikely to be good days. Publishers, ad tech companies and agencies there are opportunities for you here too. Take a stronger stance on not running any adverts on your heaviest and most inappropriate stories so the chances of questionable adjacency are greatly diminished. Make clearer recommendations to the advertisers you work with where you see their settings being unduly limiting. Proactively find networks and partners who can better help us all navigate to content we want to be around and see continue. There are going to be budget cuts for many in the coming weeks. There are going to be continued pressures around brand safety terms. If we cut the funding from high-quality content and journalism it simply won’t exist for us to advertise against in the future.

Even forgetting the societal and cultural impacts of that, can you really build your brand alongside the content on a celebrity plastic surgery slide show? It’s time to look again at brand safety, and as with all data and targeting to make sure we are using it to be relevant to more people not visible to fewer. For help and advice on how to approach the challenges of brand safety and other issues in the digital ecosystem check out the Conscious Advertising Network. I’m also proud to be part of the WFA’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media which is working with agencies, ad tech and publishers to build out new standards, educate stakeholders and try and change the internet for the better.

Jerry Daykin is the EMEA senior director for GSK