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The Road from Brand Safety to Corporate Responsibility

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Throughout 2020 and into 2021, brands have gotten accustomed to pivoting when the news cycle hangs on unprecedented events. We’ve seen advertisers react quickly: pausing campaigns, pulling spend and using massive keyword lists to block content they don’t want to be associated with.

When it comes to keyword blocking, the effects have been far-reaching, and publishers have taken a huge hit. A study last year from the University of Baltimore found that newspaper and magazine publishers in the UK, U.S., Japan and Australia missed about $3 billion in digital revenue as “over-blocking” stopped ads appearing in articles with “safe or neutral content.” Advertisers want brand safety, but today’s method of keyword blocking is like bringing in a sledgehammer when you need a scalpel.

To effectively reach consumers and support publishers, marketers should be concerned about the quality of the publisher’s brand and the sentiment of the information their ads appear next to, instead of the generalized context. Contextual keyword blocking is a fool’s errand and is killing quality journalism. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you use your ad dollars to support quality journalism, even when the topic is uncomfortable or unfortunate, consumers will respect your brand.

In fact, recent research by the Interactive Advertising Bureau reported that in addition to increased trust, brands that advertise within news are also more likely to see increases in consumer perception, and those consumers are more likely to consider making a purchase after being exposed to a brand’s advertisement within their preferred news sources.

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So how can you use your ad dollars to support quality journalism and stop the flow of disinformation? Here are some steps you can take today to help the advertising ecosystem thrive:

Reward good behavior. So much of the advertising industry has been focused on looking for bad behavior online and working on ways to prevent it. Marketers can leverage their position to identify good behavior instead and reward that, because there’s less of it, it’s easier to spot and it doesn’t change every minute of every day. We’ve come to know which publishers we can count on for fact-checking, use of multiple sources and overall reliable and trustworthy content. If you have doubts, you can check for things like how many third-party sources the publication links to, the age of the domain, or whether the publication is on any number of “fake news” lists curated by consumer watch groups across the web. All it takes is some research to know which publishers are worth supporting with your ad dollars.

Check your tech. If you’re in charge of managing brand safety for your organization, it’s important to look at your provider and the tech they’re using. Work with companies that deeply understand audiences and check that they are not just looking at context (i.e. does this one keyword appear anywhere on the page?), but are taking sentiment into account. Review your keywords and make sure they are updated regularly. Talk to your agency about how they are developing your keyword lists. All of your partners should have your best interest in mind, and they should be looking at brand safety as more than the context of an article. It’s better to have your brand next to a respected publisher than it is for your brand not to appear next to unpleasant news.

Think beyond today’s best customer. Striving to satisfy everyone results in your brand standing for nothing. This was demonstrated back in the 90s when brands were hesitant to be associated with anything related to the LGBTQ+ community. SKYY vodka took the opposite approach when it launched in 1992 and came out of the gate as a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, including advertising in LGBTQ+-focused publications. Since then, the brand has sought to find inventive ways to champion the queer community and has developed a loyal following of customers. They won over an audience that was often ignored and took a stand as a brand. It wasn’t about brand safety, but about corporate responsibility. I am a loyal customer of brands that support my community.

Start at the top. At some point, your brand will have to take a stand and it starts at the top, often with the CMO. You have to define who you are, what you stand for and what you will and will not do. This then funnels down to your media strategists and your media planners, who need to design how campaigns should be constructed based on your values. Make sure every person at every level in your organization — from brand owner to campaign executor — understands your belief system.

The world we live in operates on power, and we all know money is power. Where advertising dollars go, so do consumers, and right now they are looking for trustworthy and quality content to help them understand current events. The only way to fix our society is to control the flow of money, not fund the purveyors of misinformation, and that’s where brands have the power to use their voice.


Somer Simpson is VP of Product Management at Quantcast. She has spent more than 20 years in online media or media-related start-ups. Most recently, she led the development of Quantcast Choice, the first widely available consent solution for publishers and advertisers based on the IAB Europe’s GDPR Transparency and Consent Framework. After starting her career in photojournalism, Simpson moved into online publishing during its infancy in 1994 where her work included leading digital content for the Miami Herald. She later worked for U.S. newspaper publishing group Knight Ridder, the largest U.S. newspaper publisher at the time. While there, her innovations in digital publishing helped a local Mississippi newspaper continue delivering news to citizens after Hurricane Katrina took its paper offline in 2005. The paper’s combined print and online coverage went on to win the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism. Following several roles in technology and communications companies, Simpson joined Quantcast in 2017.

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