Brand Safety or Brand Risk Management? The Challenge Is Bigger Than Ads.

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Cover image for  article: Brand Safety or Brand Risk Management? The Challenge Is Bigger Than Ads.

The rise of the information age has come with the imperative to brand oneself.  Along with this need, the mantra that “all publicity is good publicity” seems to have taken on the quality of a metaphysic truth.  Under its star, the advertising industry has pursued an agenda to spread their clients’ logos far and wide … come what may.  And herein lies a false promise -- one that has resulted in an ever-deepening loss of integrity which threatens valuable brands.

“Brand risk management” assesses and mitigates the valuation threat that branded assets face -- a result of our increasingly activist consumer environment.  In our polarized information climate where consumers’ calls for brands to take stands on issues of social concern are growing ever louder, the merely incremental and mostly technical solutions proposed by the “brand safety” framework are too small to matter and will likely fail to address the challenges companies and brands face today.

Advertising and Media: A Symbiotic Relationship

Advertising depends on a cooperating, hand-in-glove relationship between the information an ad contains and the perceived reputation of the vehicle delivering the ad.  Both parties -- advertiser and publisher -- benefit from a virtuous cycle built on mutual integrity.  A publisher earns revenue from hosted ads, and this enables the publisher to offer (often) free content to draw in ever more readers or viewers.  An advertiser can reach audiences in an environment that has earned trust and, in the digital ecosystem, can also collect user data enabling more relevant, targeted, improved advertising messages in the future.

But publishers running poor quality ads for irrelevant products in inappropriate places will see reputation declines over time.  The often-cited example of ads for children’s products appearing alongside adult content hurts everybody.  And as publisher reputations decline, so too does their ability to command higher ad rates, which leads to further quality declines.  This downward cycle ultimately threatens to damage the integrity of brand assets as they become associated with poor quality and less reliable information.

This symbiotic relationship is at the core of “brand safety,” an important concern that’s re-surfaced during a time of increased socio-economic polarization, which in turn is resulting partly from a high degree of information skepticism.

“Brand Safety” Enters the Scene

The Advertiser Protection Bureau and Brand Safety Institute have recently formed to help combat the various issues and concerns that have arisen with the proliferation of digital advertising.  The list of concerns is long:

  • Substandard ad quality.  Ads that do not launch properly, are unreadable or poorly executed.
  • Inadequate vetting of partner platforms and websites.  Many publishers are not what they seem and their audiences do not match well with a brand’s consumer profile.
  • Poor ad placement on sites/platforms. Web readers have trained themselves to avoid and ignore digital ads.  Some websites are designed to intentionally encourage misplaced clicks and unintended consumer interactions.
  • Published content doesn’t match well with ad content.  Ads touting breakfast cereal probably don’t belong on extremist websites.
  • Fraud (clicks, influencers).  Not all “clicks” are made on purpose, not all influencers have “actual” followers.  Often, bots are deployed both to drive up clicks and followers.
  • Fake accounts and bots. Not all social media accounts are authentic, some are simply fake and others are automated, designed to mimic human user behavior.
  • Inadequate custodianship over consumer data.  The privacy and custodial management safeguards of consumer user data is only now coming to the fore as a major issue.  Publishers and data aggregators have ignored this issue for years.

Too often, the solutions proposed to address these many issues are reduced to enhancements focused on technology and algorithms.   Consistent with this view, a primary goal is maximum scale for little cost: “all publicity is good publicity.”   However, this technology framework fails to address what drives the high degree of information skepticism that afflicts our age, putting brand investments at high risk.

Digital Media and Information Pollution

With the vast scale and reach of digital and social media, the quantity of information has become so immense that readers and publishers have become increasingly dependent on the use of technology and algorithmic short cuts to manage supply.  However, machine managed content, served up to satisfy the readers’ interest, has deepened and hardened their biases into siloed opinions impenetrable by formerly shared truths -- and with this our civic discourse has been degraded. 

With the corruption in civic discourse, the veracity of information is being replaced by opinion, and where mere opinion prevails, so too does the possibility for fraud.  Further, social media has opened the possibility for consumers and other actors to troll and attack brands.  It’s past time for companies and brands to take increased responsibility for their digital associations.

Due to the scale of information pollution in digital media, algorithmic solutions are a necessity.  While they may be helpful avoiding ad placements in identified undesirable contexts, by themselves they are insufficiently addressing the far broader concerns of comprehensive “brand safety.”  Algorithms don’t exercise judgment in their operations, they simply apply a predetermined rule to those situations identified in advance.  Even with machine-learning enhancements, programmatic advertising will remain inured to the responsibility companies are increasingly called upon to assume for their branded identities. 

Broadening the Perspective to “Brand Risk Management”

The over-reliance on algorithms and technology, while necessary, evades the responsibility that digital platforms need to assume if they are to be an environment conducive to brand stewardship.

When Facebook announces its mae culpas, they do so on televisionorin newspapers, not via social media.  In the context of lost integrity, that’s not surprising.  However, when even Facebook is using traditional media as the primary vehicle for their self-improvement campaigns, an obvious question arises: Why would an advertiser choose to place an ad in digital media, at all? 

When the corporate leaders of these digital platforms respond that they simply cannot sufficiently police their platforms, when they double down on mere technological solutions (improved algorithms, always more, better data), they are avoiding responsibility for their own brands’ health by displaying the same short-sighted judgment as the algorithms they deploy.

Instead, “brand safety” is emerging as one of the mandates of a broader and expanding “brand risk management” need.  Given the pressure companies are increasingly facing from activist consumers, employees and investors to address various issues of serious social concern, brands should look beyond the mere technological solution of safer programmatic advertising. 

Brands should take the pressure they are getting from societal stakeholders and use it to better assess their broader brand-risk profiles.  They should demand a digital ecosystem that is better policed with respect to the information pollution that seems endemic, and which is a key driver of the socio-economic activism that can damage their valuable brand assets. 

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