4 September 2018

How advertisers can solve the very modern crisis of brand safety

Three-quarters of businesses reported at least one brand-unsafe exposure in the past year, yet 15% don’t use any countermeasures. For advertisers willing to embrace (and not shun) technology, the future of brand safety is bright 


August 6, 2018 5:47

Paid for by GUMGUM


We are living in strange times. In our modern media landscape, brands do not simply advertise products. Increasingly, they are taking a moral or, more likely, political stance. What’s more, such pronouncements run far deeper than a Pride-supporting range of rainbow-coloured Converse, and threaten to reject customers holding particular views en masse.


Budget British pub chain Wetherspoon, for instance, is staunchly pro-Brexit. (So much so that, prior to the fraught EU Referendum in June 2016, it printed 200,000 beer mats that implored its patrons to vote leave. More recently, Wetherspoon vowed to sell more non-EU beverages – such as sparkling wine produced in the UK or Australia, instead of Champagne.) Elsewhere, amidst the sudden rollout of President Trump’s contentious travel ban in February 2017, Starbucks unveiled a plan to hire 100,000 refugees within five years, an announcement that, simultaneously, drew left-wing acclaim and right-wing venom.


Tactics such as these represent an undeniable risk (as shown by #BoycottStarbucks on social media, or Wetherspoon’s recent losses of £9 million), yet at least the manoeuvres were intentional. Many more brands are enduring similar consumer backlash, except these complaints are more commonly centred around their ads appearing near unsavoury content – such as pornography, hate speech or fake news.


A shining example of this running battle is Sleeping Giants, a social media activist collective that emerged shortly after the US presidential election in November 2017. The initiative lobbies brands to remove their ads from news outlets that promote, in their own words, “bigotry, sexism and racism.” Sleeping Giants has dedicated outposts around the world (including France, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) and nearly 4,000 businesses have so far heeded their polite warnings to course-correct their ad spend, with BMW, Audi, Visa – even Mumbrella – among them. Described by the Washington Post as “the mysterious group that’s picking Breitbart apart, one tweet at a time,” Sleeping Giants’ sway is growing so great that, on 16 July 2018, alt-right website The Daily Caller unmasked its anonymous founder – an award-winning ad writer from San Francisco, Matt Rivitz.


The thing is, unlike the proactive (some might argue provocative) political messaging of a Wetherspoon or a Starbucks, the presence of advertisements that window dress insalubrious content is, for the most part, accidental – a mere quirk of programmatic advertising that causes the advert to dock there, in naïve search of its target user.


Of course, in these tense and truculent times, ‘accidents’ no longer cut the mustard with customers, mainly as the affected brands can be accused of endorsing or even funding the material in question. The stats back up this claim – findings from a recent study (by Digiday and artificial intelligence company GumGum) showed 75% of brands reported at least one brand-unsafe exposure in the past year, and, perhaps more significantly, 47% witnessed angry messages on social media as a result.


Given it would be unusual that a firm would seek to align themselves with fake news willingly, nor want to face the circumstance where they circulate a hastily-written press release distancing themselves from ISIS, the question remains: how can advertisers ensure their brand is truly safe?


The simple answer is – just like the politico brands that came before them – modern advertisers need to start being proactive. “Awareness isn’t enough,” says Jon Stubley, managing director ANZ for GumGum. “From our survey, we saw that 70% of brands say they’re taking brand safety seriously, but few are putting preventive measures in place to deal with that.” In fact, 45% of those surveyed said they’ve only started employing brand safety software in the last year. Some 15% still use none at all. GumGum’s pioneering protection technology goes further than its rivals because it can screen images, too. “We see what’s behind the page, and we’re looking at the image itself.”


The benefits of such an offering are twofold. Firstly, in scanning images (and, to a lesser extent, video) across multiple platforms, GumGum’s computer vision technology allows contextually relevant ads to appear where users are most likely to see them. The bonus is that with contextual relevance comes brand safety: GumGum’s AI blocks anywhere from 24-238% more pages than other brand safety providers.


Jon Stubley is the managing director ANZ for GumGum


How does it work? GumGum’s semantic analysis automatically removes questionable pages that include brand unsafe text, while its patented image recognition technology does the same thing for images and video, programmatically identify objects with a laser-focus. As a result, pictures or video depicting natural disasters, firearms, nudity and more are all spotted – and duly blocked – as are divisive political reports, or offensive symbols such as swastikas.  At the same time, the GumGum offering is fully bespoke to each client, meaning further items can be black- or white-listed to suit. The Brand Safety Engine can also plug-in to existing third party brand safety solutions.


While GumGum’s safety credentials are beyond reproach, its advertising offering is just as innovative. Knowing that a photo is safe and contextually sound means that brands are now able to place their ad in-image. “Our advertising is integrated within the content, via the images themselves,” says Stubley. “And we have a number of different ad units that we utilise, from full takeovers of the image themselves to what we call an in-screen ad, which is browser-based.”


As its tech basks in critical acclaim throughout the industry, GumGum’s two-pronged approach certainly makes business sense. Targeted, intuitive, truly relevant advertising promises to drive revenue for a brand, while also sparing their blushes – as the risk of their product appearing near questionable content is all but eliminated.


It’s not a perfect science with Stubley pointing out that news websites do present something of a unique problem, just because most of the news is questionable. “And if we think it’s questionable the platform automatically blocks it because we don’t want to take the risk.”


Stubley freely admits that “there is probably no 100%, completely brand safe environment” but is steadfast in his opinion that “when brands suffer, we all suffer as an ecosystem”.


He adds: “It’s in all of our interests in how we solve this moving forward.” Being its own unique solution, underpinned with cutting-edge technology, GumGum is undoubtedly making a compelling argument for being at the front of the queue.