How to Keep Your Ad Out of the Digital Ghetto

Depending Solely on Brand Safety Technologies Won't Cut It

By Published on .

Tom Hespos
Tom Hespos
If you're relying solely on brand safety technologies to keep your online ads away from inappropriate content, you might want to rethink that approach.

Brand protection technologies such as DoubleVerify and AdSafe have some weak points. Once you know what trips them up, finding a web page that features major brand advertisers running next to inappropriate content is as easy as performing a Google search.

Monitoring tools are pretty good at picking up toxic keywords or even flesh tones within digital photographs. They might exclude entire domains from your ad buy, based on a determination that the domain consists mostly of inappropriate content. But brand safety tools are not so good at dealing with domains containing multiple content types, where inappropriate content can appear in graphics that don't set off image analysis red flags.

This is why it's important to apply some human common sense to keep your brand out of the digital ghetto.

To adequately protect your brand, an agency needs to understand where the digital ghetto is, why it exists, and why ad networks and exchanges can seem so keen to serve your ads into it.

Nissan ad in questionable environs
Nissan ad in questionable environs

Two market factors drive these content-related brand mishaps. We've already touched on overreliance on technology. The other is the ad network business dynamic that prioritizes reach over quality. First, a bit of history ...

One business model that got a lot of traction during the first dot-com boom went something like this:
1. Offer free web hosting to anybody and everybody
2. Serve ads over the personal home pages that people uploaded
3. Profit

Popular websites of the time that made use of this model included Geocities, Tripod, Angelfire and FortuneCity. But there were many more, some which continue under this model. Today, many of these websites are vast digital ghettos.

One of the unforeseen consequences of offering free home pages is that content is very difficult to police. With thousands upon thousands of independent webmasters able to upload whatever they pleased whenever they pleased, content monitoring became a Herculean task. Some free web page hosts left content policing to the people who visited the pages, leaving a "Report this Site" link for anyone who wanted to report inappropriate content. Others used imperfect technology. Keeping content reasonably clean became an uphill battle.

Another unforeseen difficulty with this business model is that free web hosts are always under constant attack from spammers. Surfing through many of the abandoned web pages at some of the hosts I linked to earlier, I saw that spammers had hacked sites and loaded them up with inappropriate content and porn keywords. In many other cases, they've simply uploaded pages of their own that serve as redirect gateways to porn sites.

Many of the popular free web hosts were bought out by larger companies during the mid- to late '90s. Geocities was bought by Yahoo and was recently taken offline. Tripod and Angelfire were bought by Lycos, which then was purchased by Terra. Just about every major portal site had its own version of free web hosting.

With all of the buying, selling and merging, most online advertising sellers forgot about what a pain these sites were to maintain. Monitoring, if it existed at all, fell by the wayside. Their owners got tired of hearing media buyers objecting to proposals that contained ad inventory running on the free web hosts.

Enter the ad networks. During their rise, potential reach became the metric by which all players were evaluated. One way to gain instant reach was by establishing relationships with the free web hosts. So much content was uploaded during the '90s that anyone starting an ad network could put themselves on the map simply by pulling in a few players in the free web hosting business. The potential reach boost was enough to give an ad network a boost in ComScore rankings against their competition.

That's how ad networks came to sell ad inventory that lives in the digital ghetto. They've since learned to use technology to guard against most instances of advertisers running within questionable content, but "most" is different from "all." And they won't get rid of the questionable inventory, because doing so would jeopardize their potential reach rankings against their competition.

On a jaunt through some of these ghettoized areas of the web recently, I found several brand advertisements on pages containing unsavory content. I saw Consumer Reports, one of the most trusted brands in the world, running a banner on a page containing nude cartoons. Consumer Reports wasn't alone. Mercedes-Benz, Barnes & Noble, Nissan and Ameriprise Financial were among the other respected brands spotted there.

My trusty Ghostery plug-in, which reveals web trackers, showed that many ad networks had the potential to serve ads into these questionable pages. Casale Media, Google, DoubleClick and Media6Degrees were among the media companies with trackers on those pages. The Right Media ad exchange also had code there. To be fair, the fact that a media company has code on a particular page doesn't mean it necessarily serves ads there. They may have the potential to serve ads, but might use technology to prevent that from happening. But, as I've said before, technology isn't perfect.

Nothing can replace a diligent agency when it comes to keeping brands out of inappropriate areas. Agencies have a number of weapons at their disposal to combat inappropriate placements, including the use of pre-approved site lists and negotiated penalties for unapproved placements.

Humans, not robots, run the tightest ship when it comes to brand protection.

Tom Hespos is the chairman and president of Underscore Marketing. Follow Underscore Marketing on Twitter at @_MarketingLLC.
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