Brand safety is a social media issue - and it always will be
A view from Andrew Tenzer

Brand safety is a social media issue - and it always will be

Our latest research confirms that the general public can tell the difference between an unsafe platform and a quality news publisher - so why can’t our industry?

Over the past three years, Ian Murray and I have published several studies highlighting the psychological and behavioural differences between people working in our industry and mainstream audiences.

We proved that the majority of the population has what’s known as a "holistic" thinking style – seeing the world as a circle, relational, complex and placing greater value on context.

People in our industry tend towards an "analytical" thinking style – seeing the world as a straight line, characterised by a greater focus on individuality and an understanding that the world is "discrete and dichotomous". 

We have argued that these often, unconscious differences result in our industry making decisions that are often at odds with the very people we’re trying to influence, and is a contributing factor to advertising becoming less effective over time.

The decision-making relating to brand safety is evidence of this. The subject shot to the top of the agenda back in 2017 when it was discovered that some leading brands were inadvertently advertising alongside content promoting terrorism and hatred on YouTube. It quickly became apparent that this was also a significant problem across social media.

I don’t think there’s a better example of straight-line thinking than the industry’s response to these very worrying developments. The basic assumption that all sites are equal, led to the introduction of blunt brand safety tools, which lacked any sort of nuance and complexity.

While there is ongoing work within the industry to try to tackle these problems, as long as technology continues to evolve and new platforms are created, online safety issues won’t be disappearing any time soon.

Brands are certainly right to be concerned about where their advertising appears.

Our new study In Safe Hands found that 87% of UK adults said brands should be careful where they place ads online.

However, it’s clear that our industry’s current focus is too broad. While 52% expected to see violent content on social media and 44% on user-generated content video sites, only 9% had the same expectation of digital news sites – this pattern was repeated for extremist content and shocking content.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. We all know how unsafe social media and UGC video sites are. People aren’t stupid either – they know these platforms aren’t the subject of stringent regulations, and lack any form of editorial curation.

In another twist, people seem to have a more nuanced view of the relationship between content and context than those working in our industry.

UK adults were at least twice as likely to agree that brands advertising on news brand sites would be associated with values such as quality, trustworthiness and reliability compared with those advertising on social media or UGC video sites.

So, let’s be honest and call it like it is. Brand safety is – and always will be – a social media and user-generated video sites issue. Somewhat ironically, the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have recently confirmed this. By banning Trump from their platforms, it’s clear that even they recognise their core products have the potential to be extremely dangerous – not just brand dangerous, but dangerous for democracy.

The one-size-fits-all approach to brand safety has important implications for brands.

They have lost access to large amounts of quality inventory, which would otherwise be available through premium digital publishers. But why? There is no evidence that publisher content is unsafe for brands.  

There are also sophisticated brand safety tools, such as Mantis, powered by IBM Watson’s machine learning, which Reach launched to curb articles being inappropriately blocked around words such as  "NHS", "queer", "gay" and "black". This remedies the poor blanket methodology many brands and agencies still apply to publishers and social media. 

In our research, we tested different levels of content intensity of stories on Reach’s national websites. We found that advertising alongside high-intensity content has no adverse impact on the advertising brands. Attitudes towards the advertiser were the same regardless of the type of content they consumed.

A sentiment analysis of respondents’ response to the content shows that although negative emotions were associated with the higher-intensity content, these emotions were not transferred to the advertising brands.

It’s time to be more concerned about where your ads appear and what the environment says about your brands, than placing disproportionate focus on what content it may sit alongside. The general public can tell the difference between an unsafe platform and a quality news publisher, so why can’t our industry?

Andrew Tenzer is director of market insight and brand strategy at Reach

Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images