One of the risks of online advertising that doesn’t seem to get a lot of publicity is advertisers lacking control over where their ads are displayed. Automated ad placement can result in a company inadvertently supporting extremist content with their advertising dollars. Not only can this placement do serious damage to a company’s brand, but it can represent a significant amount of wasted advertising budget, as the target audience for this content is unlikely to be the customer you’re trying to reach!
Let's Define the Problem
Part of the problem can be a difference between how the advertiser and the media platform define unacceptable, extremist, or hateful content. Sure, maybe there’s agreement that ISIS or the Taliban or the KKK are definitely unacceptable, but what about InfoWars, the Family Research Council, or Oath Keepers? Depending on your company, these may be unacceptable sites for your ads to support, but they might not be identified by your advertising platform as extremist content.
How It Works
One challenge facing advertisers is the increasing sophistication of the owners of extremist websites. A recent example is how Steve Bannon managed to sidestep Google’s rules by publishing a video player on his site that showed only innocuous content like “how to improve your LinkedIn profile” and “how to protect your phone in winter weather” which was constantly interrupted by ads, while his actual content, showing clips from his “War Room” podcast, ran lower on the page. While Google insisted that none of their rules were violated by this, advertisers who discovered that they had appeared on the site were understandably upset.
Another trick that site owners use to bypass advertising rules is to create a site that contains harmless content which links to other, extremist, media. A network of interconnected organizations and sites can then hand-off site visitors while presenting an acceptable façade to automated ad placement algorithms.
What's Your Risk?
So what’s the risk to your organization if your ads are displayed on extremist sites or videos? An ever-increasing number of consumers are focused on the ethics of the companies they do business with and choosing to move their spend to providers who align with their values. Especially among millennial and younger audiences, a company’s ethics and politics are definitely part of the user journey of customers and potential customers. While you don’t have to wear your political leanings on your sleeve, supporting political or social organizations that your customers find distasteful could definitely create problems for your brand, whether it’s through advertising or the personal activities of your leadership. You can’t, and most people don’t, separate the business from the business owner.
What Can You Do About It?
But how can you ensure that your ads aren’t running in places you really don’t want them? Google and YouTube (owned by Google) do have protocols in place for preventing ad placement on extremist content, but they are by many accounts insufficient (see this in-depth article for more detail).
The best way to protect yourself is to avoid blind bidding for advertising placement and choose to target premium inventory instead. This will increase the cost of your advertising, but if brand safety is important to you, this is the safest approach.
For true transparency and peace of mind, publishers and advertisers are looking to work with adtech companies that have transitioned to open-source Software Development Kits (SDKs). Mintegral, IAS, Verve, and others are moving towards open-source models.
For more on the open-source trend in adtech and why it’s a good thing, check out this article by Erick Fang.
If you’re concerned about ad placement and the best ways to protect and promote your brand, get in touch! We’re always happy to have a conversation and see how we can help.