Snapchat may have successfully made the leap from "sexting" app to mobile media powerhouse, from dick pics to stock picks, but it can still present some unsafe moments for brands.
Ads for IHOP, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, "The Lego Batman Movie," "Chips" and others have recently popped up among nude videos from everyday users or X-rated posts from porn-star influencers. While a person would have to seek out and follow those accounts to ever see them, major brands typically strive to stay away from that sort of content in any event.
Snapchat on Thursday became a publicly traded company, following years of work to shed its early image as a venue for young people's nude photos and videos. It has come a long way, but like any social media platform where everyday users create most of the content, it's hard to control for every eventuality. And ads on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat are typically tailored to the user, not the content. That can lead to unfortunate ad placements -- an app-install ad right after a spammy porn post on Instagram, or a pre-roll video ad before a terrorist-related video on YouTube.
Snapchat advertisers often buy the brand-safe publisher section, where partners like BuzzFeed, NBC Universal, ESPN and The New York Times post video. The app also features personal videos in Stories, however, where anyone can follow anyone and post almost anything. Snapchat runs post-roll video ads that it delivers through its ad tech platform, targeted to the user based on interests and other factors.
"There is always a fear running ads between people's stories on Snapchat," said one social media executive, who asked not to be identified because of a close working relationship with the company. "God knows what people are showing in Stories."
Snapchat does monitor the app and ban bad actors, and it appears as if most of its 160 million daily users are sharing suitable content. However, its system can't catch every salacious video snippet.
An IHOP spokeswoman said Snapchat represents an exciting new platform for the brand to reach fans and called it a key part of the larger marketing strategy. That said, the restaurant chain works closely with platforms and its media buying agency to discuss its expectations for how its ads will appear in social media environments.
"When it comes to advertising on social media platforms," IHOP said in an emailed statement, "we apply careful targeting parameters so that our ads are most likely to appear alongside content aligned with our brand values and family-focused audience."
There also is an understanding that on Snapchat people curate the content that they want to view, "which is out of our control," the statement said.
General Mills and Warner Bros. declined to comment. Ads from the brands were seen running after stories posted from accounts that flaunted nudity and sex, some less tasteful than others. After monitoring such accounts for about two weeks, it appeared as if at least one of them had been caught by Snapchat and blocked. Also, some spam-like accounts that promoted porn sites outside of Snapchat never showed an ad after their stories.
If Snapchat's policing tools are at least partly effective, it is unclear exactly how the system works behind the scenes. The company uses a mix of human and computer monitoring to try to keep things clean. The monitoring is in effect for public videos, and not part of what individuals share in personal messages, which do not show ads.
A Snapchat spokesman acknowledged that some ads could be served to users who seek out explicit content, but said the company prohibits pornography and has reporting and enforcement mechanisms. Snapchat is investing in automated detection systems, too.
While Snap Ads can run as breaks between stories, they aren't tied to any content in those instances, the spokesman added. The ads are different than a pre-roll ad that tees up content or a mid-roll ad that interrupts content with a more clearly connected sponsorship message. Also, Snapchat's ads occupy all the screen-space, meaning brands never technically appear alongside anything explicit.
Most brands understand that there is no guarantee in almost any digital setting that an ad will be perfectly timed or placed. And on Snapchat, a person has to intentionally seek risqué or pornographic content in order to encounter it.
But CMOs are always sensitive about the topic. "There is a point at which the viewer is the arbiter of good taste," said Rob Norman, chief digital officer at GroupM, the world's largest ad buyer on behalf of marketers. "Still, our expectation of all platforms is that they will eliminate the juxtaposition with porn, and anything criminal or hate speech. It's our expectation that they will build systems to create brand-safe environments."
Most social platforms have the same challenges keeping "brightly lit," in brand-safety jargon. On YouTube, its No. 1 star, PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg), was fired last month by Disney's Maker Studios for joking about anti-Semitism. His offending posts weren't found for months while ads continued to run on his channel.
"There were probably a billion impressions across all his videos before it was caught," said the social media agency exec. "This notion of brand safety is such garbage."
That may be true online, but less so on traditional TV and older forms of media, where the content is planned and predictable. TV networks and premium publishers promote their professional content as a way to differentiate their products from the social platforms like Snapchat, which has been going hard after TV ad dollars.
"Every platform with user-generated content has that challenge," said Mark Read, global CEO of Wunderman, referring to brand safety and explicit content. "But Snapchat does still have that rep among some clients, which they have to overcome. Part of going public is maturity."