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Survey: Consumers savvy about brand safety issues  

December 17, 2020

Consumers express a nuanced appreciation of the complexities of the brand safety decisions faced by advertisers, according to a new survey conducted by the digital advertising industry certification programme the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) and digital advertising industry initiative Brand Safety Institute (BSI) among more than a thousand US adults via SurveyMonkey.

For example, instead of blocking controversial news content, 40 per cent of consumers said all news content should be appropriate for ads, and the remainder differentiated between stories involving violence and death and those about policy, societal changes, and peaceful protests on the same issues. In addition, consumers defined the issue of brand safety broadly, including not only inappropriate ad placements but also ad-related malware and ads placed near pirated content.

The historic confluence of inflammatory events over the last year – from Covid-19 to racial justice protests, the nation’s economic crisis, and election controversies – appears to have dramatically elevated consumer focus on brand safety issues, with 83 per cent of respondents saying they were more aware of brand safety issues than they were a year ago.

“The past year has been a witches’ brew of toxic brand safety challenges across public health, economic, and political topics, and – happily – this survey showed the success of our industry’s efforts to set higher standards and professionalise the field of brand safety,” said Mike Zaneis, CEO of the TAG and co-founder of BSI. “Rather than clumsy and narrow traditional approaches that focused on specific keywords or solely on ad adjacency, we are now looking holistically at these challenges in a nuanced, consumer-centric way.”

Among other findings of the survey:

  • The large majority of respondents (87 per cent) said it is very or somewhat important for advertisers to make sure their ads don’t appear near dangerous, offensive, or inappropriate content.
  • An overwhelming majority said they would reduce their spending on a product they regularly buy that appeared near offensive, illegal, or dangerous content, including Nazi propaganda (86 per cent), terrorist recruiting videos (90 per cent), pirated content (83 per cent), or malware (92 per cent).
  • Among potential topics of brand-unsafe content, consumers are most strongly opposed to ads running near the ‘fearsome four’ of hate speech (74 per cent), pornography (68 per cent), violence (63 per cent), and illegal drugs (68 per cent).
  • Consumers define brand safety broadly, including ad-related piracy and malware, with more than half saying that advertisers should prevent their ads from running near stolen/pirated movies or TV shows (54 per cent) and unsafe or hacked/unsafe websites (66 per cent).
  • Respondents felt that responsibility for brand safety is broadly shared across the ad tech ecosystem with 66 per cent assigning responsibility to the advertiser, 59 per cent to the ad agency, 42 per cent to the website owner, and 59 per cent to the technology provider.
  • The vast majority of consumers (85 per cent) said they would feel more positive about a company that required all of its ad partners to be independently certified to meet high safety standards for its ads.

“Brand safety is an issue of consumer perception, and this survey highlighted how nuanced consumers have become in their evaluation of brand risks,” said Neal Thurman, co-founder of BSI. “On topic after topic, consumers differentiated between more controversial news coverage and related topics they felt were appropriate for advertising with a significant plurality saying all news coverage should be cleared for ads. Similarly, consumers looked beyond traditional content issues to include other risks like malvertising and digital piracy in their evaluation of brand safety.”

What Topics of News Coverage Should Advertisers Block for Their Ads, if Any?

(Percent of Respondents Who Said Each Type of Content Should Be Blocked)

Less Appropriate Block? More Appropriate Block?
Mass shootings in schools or other locations 38.7 per cent Firearms legislation or policy 21.7 per cent
Violent riots or civil unrest 33.5 per cent Peaceful marches or protests 16.3 per cent
Incidents of police brutality 31.8 per cent    
COVID-19 deaths and tragedies 29.9 per cent Covid-19 societal impact 20.9 per cent
Controversial political figures 27.6 per cent Plane crashes 23.8 per cent

Notably, 40 per cent of respondents said all news coverage should be appropriate for ads.

Consumers Maintain Broad View of Brand Safety-Related Issues

(Percent of Respondents Who Said Each Type of Content Should Be Blocked by Advertisers)

  2020 2019
Unsafe or Hacked Websites 65.8 per cent 72.8 per cent
Stolen/Pirated Movies or TV Shows 54.2 per cent 52.5 per cent

In September 2020, TAG launched the ad industry’s first global brand safety certification programme with more than 110 major companies participating at launch, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, GroupM, Havas, Kroger, Omnicom Media Group, Twitter, and Walmart. The programme sets rigorous standards for companies across the supply chain to demonstrate their commitment to brand safety.




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