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Last year advertisers – keen to protect their brands – added ‘coronavirus’ to their keyword blacklists. Articles that contained Covid-19 or variants of the term were anathema to brands who didn’t want their content appearing against content deemed to create negativity and reduce ROI. It was estimated by Newsworks that such ad blacklisting was set to cost publishers £50m, in addition to the other millions lost in auction against other blacklisted topics like ‘Trump’ or ‘Brexit’.

But while some of those controversial topics are on the wane or dormant, blacklisting is still on the rise. Consumers are increasingly aware of issues surrounding unsafe digital environments; research from the 2021 TAG/BSI UK Brand Safety Survey demonstrates that 85% of consumers would boycott brands whose content appeared against Covid-19 conspiracies, for instance. Between the opaque nature of digital advertising and the nascent tech that underpins keyword blacklisting, the cost to publishers and advertisers is far from over.

Just over a third (36%) said it was appropriate to advertise with any news content, while similar proportions opposed to advertising against specific news topics such violent protests and riots (37%) and ‘Covid-19 deaths and tragedies’ (33%).

The research, conducted by the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) and Brand Safety Institute (BSI), found that of 802 UK respondents “most consumers said they would curtail purchases from a favourite brand that advertised near hate speech (89%), malware (92%), illegal content (89%) or terrorist recruiting materials (93%)”.

Additionally, respondents believe that over 90% of online content is “dangerous, offensive, or inappropriate for some users”. Consequently 72% of respondents said that it was important for advertisers to make sure their ads are not placed near that content.

The research also found that a vast majority of consumers felt that the amount of online hate speech had increased over the course of the past year. 72% of respondents felt hate speech should be blocked by advertisers, and should similarly block pornographic content (73%), violent content (68%), illegal drug-related content (66%) and unsafe or hacked websites (59%).

It is unclear to what extent ‘hate speech’ overlaps with political coverage in newspapers, as over 40% of respondents believed ‘controversial political views’ should not be advertised against. 

Consumer-driven safety

Neal Thurman, co-founder of the Brand Safety Institute and director of the Coalition for Better Ads, said: “The issues that marketers face in brand safety have gone from being largely a business-to-business concern among members of the digital advertising supply chain to entering the consumer consciousness. 

“High-profile issues like Covid misinformation, treatment of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd killing, and the series of events surrounding the US election in November have put marketers and the impact and perception of their digital spending front and center with consumers.”

Overall awareness of brand safety issues is reportedly high among the public, with over 80% claiming to be somewhat or much more aware of brand safety issues than this time last year. Despite that, opinion on who should be responsible for managing brand safety on sites is split four ways between agency, tech provider, publisher and advertiser.

The report also makes clear that the public have emotive responses to hate speech, with only 11% saying they would continue to buy a product to the same extent if the brand had advertised against hate speech. In contrast, over 40% claimed they would stop buying the product entirely. Similarly, over 90% said they felt it was very or somewhat important for advertisers to ensure their products were not advertised on sites or apps that ‘contain dangerous, offensive, or inappropriate content’.

Mike Zaneis, chief executive of TAG, said: “The past year has brought forth the four horsemen of toxic content into the advertising ecosystem: death, lies, political poison and hate speech. As brand safety threats quickly evolve, UK consumers are looking to advertising industry leaders to identify and address those types of unsafe and inappropriate content in real time.”

So while individual issues like Trump and Covid may come and go, they are just the symptoms of a wider issue for news publishers and advertisers. With the rise of campaign groups including Stop Funding Hate and wider awareness of brand safety concerns among the public, the amount of content audiences find inappropriate or unsafe for ads doesn’t seem set to decrease. Brands will naturally follow suit – and that’s only going to eat into publishers’ ad revenue.