Marketing | 10 MIN READ

The Ultimate Guide to Brand Safety


Nobody wants their brand’s image associated with something awful. Avoid implementing brand safety measures, and you run the risk of ruining your business. In this guide we clarify what brand safety is and the best practices to stay brand safe. So what is brand safety?


Brand safety is a brand’s exposure to inappropriate content. This could be an ad published next to, before, or within an unsafe environment. It’s an issue that has been growing in importance. Thanks to the automation of programmatic advertising, brands do not always know where their ads will appear, and this can lead to problems such as ad misalignment and ad fraud. There is a standard “dirty dozen” of categories that the advertising industry and marketers (generally) do not want a brand associated with. These are:

Brand safety toxic content categories

For the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), brand safety is defined as keeping a brand’s reputation safe when they advertise online. In practice this means avoiding placing ads next to the content listed above. According to the IAB this also involves providing a safe environment for ad trading. The result: a reduced risk of ad misplacement and a brand’s reputation unharmed. Plus the elimination of the funding of content and services which infringe copyright. But the reality, like most things in life, is a lot more complicated.

Malgorithms – when pages and ads misalign

Satirical news magazine, Private Eye, has a notorious “malgorithms” column. Malgorithms being examples of ads where the contextual meaning between a page and display ad is misaligned. For example, take this malgorithm drawn from The Guardian website. The content on the page is a profile of the terrorist behind the attack on the British parliament; the ad placed next to it is for The Guardian’s own dating website. The headline for the Guardian’s story: “Khalid Masood a violent criminal who was regularly on the move”. The accompanying ad’s call-to-action: “Enjoy the journey…Take a right turn at Guardian Soulmates”. This juxtaposition of ads next to content can be humorous, other times it can be in bad taste and leave a brand exposed.

An example of a misaligned ad

No location is immune. For example, a preferred location, where advertisers want to place their display ads, is sports content. It’s one of the few environments positively oriented, and visited by people who consume media with little or no delay. But it’s not without risk! Ask a sports nutrition brand that finds itself placed alongside a story about performance enhancing drugs. Or an article about a NFL player involved in a scandalous encounter below your family focused banking ad. These unfortunate juxtapositions are not what a brand signed up for.

Fake news!

Contextual understanding is huge when revenue and reputation rest upon the quality of ad placements. Take the issue of fake news. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ll know it’s been on the minds of marketers the world over. Bannerflow investigated it and came to a pretty obvious conclusion. “It’s best to avoid the risks associated with fake news”. But why does it happen? And why should a marketer care?

For a start your ad could be funding someone engaged in blatant fraud. Netting people via social media to click through to a site via a tantalising headline. If you pay no attention to where your ad is, your brand could be next to false articles and malicious allegations. The last place a pizza chain wants to find its ad is next to a fake news story like pizzagate. It’s an issue that has led to reddit pulling programmatic advertising from conspiracy theory threads. While Google has updated its AdSense policy. All moves stemming from brands not wanting to align with damaging “fake” content. AdSense now avoids websites that “misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information”.

Extremist sites

Moving along from the issue of fake news, there’s the spectre of ad on a site that hosts extremist views. A marketer’s nightmare is to find their brand associated with a hateful viewpoint. Let alone know that they funded said viewpoint through an ad! Again, whether, far left, far right, racist, sexist, or religious, a brand does not want to be next to content that damages it.

In particular, Google has come under a great deal of scrutiny. This stems from its AdWords platform publishing ads on US right wing news website Breitbart News. Unlike competitor AppNexus – which has banned the site – it offers a choice. Rather than avoiding placing content there altogether, Google allows marketers to choose to place an ad on the site, or not. For organisations, such as Sleeping Giants, this has meant informing brands when they see ads on Breitbart. Pressuring advertisers to blacklist the site. This public shaming has led to 2000 brands ceasing advertising on Breitbart. The fact is, once there is momentum, a marketer must be quick to back the winning side of any argument.  

YouTube goes wrong

Satisfying brand safety is a pressing problem for streaming services, such as YouTube. And since 2017 it’s become an issue that brands can’t ignore. Brands (and governments) have found themselves placed in front of, or next to, extremist content. Both the London Times and the Wall Street Journal unearthed many examples. While fifteen minutes of browsing by the Guardian found Minecraft banners on videos about snorting cocaine.

An example of a YouTube ad gone badly wrong

Agencies and brands reacted – in some cases – by either pausing or ceasing activity on YouTube. The lesson for YouTube: provide better transparency of its inventory. Brands have also since argued for the use of third-party verification – a challenge for the video service. The fact is marketers demand better brand safety.

Why is brand safety important?

Being brand safe is critical in the world of online advertising. Ensuring an ad is seen by a real human is most important. But once that ad is seen, the consumer must draw a positive conclusion about the brand. That is the purpose of advertising, and it is lost when a brand is placed alongside damaging content.  For Hamish Nicklin, the Guardian’s chief revenue office: “The of environment matters massively to advertisers”. It is considered to be one of the leading challenges of media buying according to US digital marketers.

Graph showing the percentage of US marketers worried about brand safety

Advertisers and publishers can’t shrug their shoulders and expect forgiveness from consumers either. It is no longer acceptable (and it wasn’t in the past). After all, traditional publishers have been in the business of running trusted, brand-safe ads for decades. It’s imperative for all involved in online advertising to maintain high standards of brand safety.

Why does it happen?

Some have blamed programmatic trading for making it difficult to keep safety standards high – but this is unfair. Publishers are desperate to prove the worth of their pages to gain advertisers. When head-bidding marketers have a choice of the type of page they are willing to see their ad placed. Publishers who offer a premium inventory are preferential. These tend to be safer locations for ad placement, but more expensive. The general gist is the lower you bid, the less premium (or more risky) the location your ad could find itself

Programmatic advertising gets a bad rep as it is sometimes viewed as a way to offload low-value, remnant inventory. This type of trading happens in the open marketplace, where there’s a perceived lack of transparency. Both brands and publishers are now moving toward more controlled environments. These include, programmatic marketing platforms (PMPs), and programmatic direct deals. The truth is by focusing on quality rather than quantity, marketers can better reach their target audience.


In today’s digital age, a publisher’s greatest asset is the content in its inventory. After all “it’s the seller’s responsibility, not the buyer’s, to make sure it’s safe”, as WPP Chairman Sir Martin Sorrell once remarked.

Brand safety is an issue tied to the need for greater inventory transparency.  Steve Doyle, chief commercial officer at InSkin Media is clear: “the debate is around transparency. The middleman, value creation, and the rise of automation to improve the ways in which we advertise to consumers.” Doyle, like many others, argues that those publishers who aren’t able to deliver under reasonable scrutiny need to be held accountable.

Putting up artificial barriers that makes digital advertising “mysterious” only serves the interests of companies intent on screwing over clients. After all, who buys a car without checking that it is roadworthy? A general rule is that advertisers who are serious shouldn’t buy media from anyone who cannot verify what’s in their inventory. Having total control over your digital advertising should be key for all digital marketers.

What is the industry doing?

Brand safety is an issue that online advertising is combatting on all fronts. Google, for its part has pushed in recent years to stop so called “bad actors” from gaining a foothold via its online advertising – see our blog on the topic.

One suggested response is rewarding publishers who have quality content. Key to this change is inventory transparency being a selling point for networks and ad exchanges. Publishers such as AppNexus now claim that they now have a higher level of inventory transparency than ever. Buyers like to know what it is they are getting and will pay for it. The general rule is you get higher monetization rates when you sell transparency.

…And YouTube?

Changes are a foot at YouTube too. According to Google UK managing director, Ronan Harris, it now recognises “that it doesn’t always get it right”. Third-party vetting is joining YouTube after brands demanded it. With media measurement and analytics firms Integral Ad Science and ComScore helping out. Google’s aim is to provide a brand safe environment across the channel. Stopping ads from appearing next to, or before toxic content, before it even becomes an issue. Giving brands “more control over where their ads appear.”

Not content with Google’s promises, third parties have their own plans. Ad giants WPP and Omnicom have announced that they will audit millions of videos and assign risk scores. The media holding companies plan to offer whitelisted YouTube videos to advertisers. Though it will be a huge task. There are more than 500 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute. Some have proposed that if Google can’t catch damaging content itself then no third party can do it better. Google has also signalled it is training its artificial learning tools to decipher YouTube’s enormous video library. In the long term could pay dividends for all involved.

How to protect my brand: best practice and rules

As a marketer it is important that you take measures to keep your brand safe. By adding a brand safety check to your campaign process this will help ensure you protect your brand online. Here are some things that you can start doing today to ensure your brand remains safe.

Define what brand safety means for you

The IAB and other organizations have outlined the industry standard definition of brand safety. But it is imperative you establish your own definition. This is important because brand safety, unlike other measurements is subjective.Take the list of toxic content mentioned earlier. What could be taboo for your brand may be fine for another. A gaming company may have very different contextual tolerances compared to a kid’s app producer.

Choose a reputable and transparent programmatic provider or agency

Make sure you choose an agency or programmatic platform that you trust. It is one of the most important steps you can take to be certain of brand safety. Thus choosing a programmatic platform is critical. Brad Bender, VP Product Management at Google suggests four questions when selecting:

  • How many inventory providers do you plan on using?
  • Where do you want your ads to show?
  • How serious are you about audience targeting?
  • What tools do you need to hit your goals

Opt for premium inventory

If brand safety is a priority for your brand, you should consider choosing premium inventory only. This option is more expensive than blind bidding, for example. But you will be making sure that your ads do not end up on unsafe domains or web pages.

Avoid blacklisted publishers

This might seem like an obvious one, but blacklisted published sometimes seem attractive. Particularly with their low prices and aggressive marketing. But by choosing a blacklisted publisher you are putting your brand in danger. Avoid.

Use insights to monitor campaigns in real-time

To increase the impact of your efforts, use real-time data to track where your ads are showing. If you find your brand compromised then take action in real-time. By using insights you can  to change any settings or targeting associated with your campaign.

Utilize a campaign’s “negative target” or exclusions

Most programmatic publishers will allow you to exclude negative targets when you are setting up your campaign. For example, Facebook allows you to exclude pretty much anything and everything you want to avoid. When setting up your campaigns, take your brand’s definition and start excluding harmful inventory. This is by no means a 100% fool-proof way to keep your brand safe. But it is the one of the most proactive things that you can do to make sure your ads display only where you want them to.

Look at third party data

Consider investing in an analytics tool for your campaigns. Whilst you will be able to access data from the tools you are using; it might not be able to crawl pages in depth. If brand safety is of particular importance, then look at companies that offer third party verification. These companies offer to check sites and pages before publishing. Ensuring your ads aren’t showing up on sites, pages, or before content that is unsafe.

A list of actions to take when making your brand safe


Building brand safety into your processes as a marketing team is now a must when advertising online. There is no excuse for a brand to placed in a dangerous position. Both publishers and marketers are now better equipped to deal with the problem. Instances should get less frequent.

And it’s already happening. An Integral Ad Science report found that the risk of misplaced video ads fell from 11.2% in the first half of 2016 to 8.9% in the final six months. While, this drop was the same for display ads, which decreased from 7.8% to 6.8% during the same period. Here at Bannerflow we see both reducing even further. And (perhaps because of this increased scrutiny, and the adoption of better standards) notoriously anti-banner ad publisher, BuzzFeed, has endorsed the humble banner – quite the development!

The truth is, tackling issues of brand safety benefits everyone online.

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