On the Issue of Brand Safety

By James Butcher (General Manager of Digital)

These have been some of the most trying times that New Zealand has faced.

Talking about it in the context of advertising feels crass, but given the role that social media—and in particular, live video streaming—played, it is critical that as an industry, we understand how this happened and take the steps required to prevent an event like this from ever making its way onto the internet again.

Whilst in this instance, the issue occurred on Facebook, the reality is that this could have occurred on any major platform that has the ability to provide immediate access to audiences. The issue has rightfully received numerous columns in the mainstream press, and though not all of them have been totally accurate, what they have done is brought the issue of safety into the limelight.

Not brand safety, but people safety.

We need to ensure that the industry is using its collective voice to make that change occur. And this is the true challenge ahead of us. How do you create meaningful, regulatory changes within organisations that operate at this global scale, in an industry that has evolved at such speed it has meant that we have relied on them to self-regulate?

The subsequent statements and commitments made by both Google and Facebook have been very positive. But the reality is, this is an enormously complex issue that crosses into censorship and freedom of speech, across multiple societal, cultural and political spectrums. While their comments are positive, meaningful change is going to be a long and drawn-out, rather than overnight, fix.

We have engaged with our global network, the major social networks, local publishers, industry boards including the Comms Council and Marketing Association, as well as our advertisers, to build a better understanding. We fundamentally believe that the major social networks must do better in creating a safe environment for people. Both have moderation measures in place—predominantly centred on AI, as well as human intervention—but this incident has highlighted that this isn’t enough.

We need to untangle this issue, and separate brand safety from people safety.

We’re now going to move on to brand safety. Not because we think that is more important, but quite frankly, the change necessary to ensure people safety, as highlighted above, is enormous and continuously evolving. Industry action has already begun, with some advertisers taking the stance of withholding investment to galvanize the change required.

The Issue of Brand Safety

Not specific to what happened in Christchurch, non-brand-safe content in general is incredibly damaging.

IPG Mediabrands has recently studied the “Brand Safety Effect” in a research collaboration between our specialist Media Lab unit, Magna and CHEQ. Chief among the study’s insights was how many consumers view brand unsafe ad placements as an intentional endorsement of the negative content.

“It seems manipulative,” suggested one respondent, “I’d prefer a company that doesn’t use that kind of technique.”

Another respondent added, “It’s disturbing that they are generating revenue through disaster.”

One respondent even went so far as saying that it “looks like [the brands are] exploiting shock value.”

Additional key findings of the Brand Safety Effect study include:

The Brand Doesn’t Care About Me: Consumers are 4.5x more likely to feel the brand doesn’t care about them if advertising in unsafe or negative environments

The Brand Is Out of Touch: Consumers are 3x more likely to feel that the brand isn’t “in the know”

The Brand is Undesirable: Consumers’ brand quality perception drops 7x

The Brand Should be Avoided: Consumers are 50% less likely to recommend the brand

For all the positive impact an effective marketing campaign can have on your audiences, the reverse is also true for the negative impact of not managing the environments you appear in. Consumers, particularly millennials, are increasingly sophisticated and sceptical of digital marketing, to the point where they will actively avoid your brand if it doesn’t align with their values.

We have seen boycott movements from consumer groups towards advertisers running on the Fox News network, for example, who are seen to be investing in a channel that is viewed as supporting damaging rhetoric. This is the evolution of the conscious consumer, supported by the power of mobilisation to apply collective pressure.

On a local level, we’ve seen publishers take the right steps to ensure brand safety. The major news networks as well as Google removed all commercialisation and branding on content around what happened in Christchurch.

But this is also about people safety. The fixes we’ve heard about so far are not set and forget solutions, and long-term change will require an ongoing, collective effort, informed by focus, consideration and care. A people-safe internet is ultimately a better place for brands, and we can play a role in ensuring that happens.

*Note: At FCB, we have partnered with IAS to manage in real-time the environments that our digital activity runs in. However, brand safety is not a set and forget solution, but something that needs to be managed and monitored continuously, given how high the potential cost.

Date: April 05, 2019