From Safety to Affinity: The Transformation of Digital Brand Advertising

The digital brand advertising landscape has seen significant changes over the last few decades. However, long before the dawn of the internet, advertisers have grappled with the challenge of placing their ads in ideal places, with print and broadcast media occasionally placing brands in awkward juxtapositions that ended up leading to public backlash.

From Safety to Affinity: The Transformation of Digital Brand Advertising
A very unfortunate ad placement is only one facet of what we’ll be covering.

As the internet continues to grow, the amount of content that is ad monetized grows too, thus increasing the chances of this awkward juxtaposition happening, but this is not just about a brand getting egg on their face with an embarrassing ad placement, sometimes the consequences can embroil entire nation states in controversy. In this article we look at how a perspective change can result in not just reduced PR headaches but improved campaign outcomes across the board.

Controversy and The Adpocalypse

The internet has created a seemingly infinite amount of places where an ad could (in theory) be placed. Many online platforms have struggled to reliably moderate the content on their websites. This lead to a reliance on software systems that were not capable of understanding the nuance of human communication, and more concerning, platforms sometimes deal with perverse incentives that drove platforms push the boundaries of what is considered reasonable oversight. If you’re curious, here is a timeline of scandals that Facebook dealt with just in 2018.

The rise of brand safety in digital marketing was triggered by a number of high-profile incidents that highlighted a lack of oversight and sophistication in the digital advertising ecosystem. This created the need for brands to protect their reputation and image in the digital advertising landscape. Let’s take a closer look at one of them, YouTube’s Adpocalypse:

  1. YouTube Ad Placement Controversies: One of the most notable incidents occurred on YouTube. Major brands, such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Walmart, discovered that their video ads were being displayed alongside extremist or hate-filled content on the platform. One video with overtly racist words on it’s title featured a Coca-Cola ad, a screenshot went viral and was widely covered by the press.
  2. Media Coverage: These revelations generated extensive media coverage and public outrage. News stories and investigations highlighted the fact that brands’ advertisements were inadvertently funding and supporting objectionable content.
  3. Public Outcry: In response to these revelations, consumers, advocacy groups, and the general public expressed their outrage and concern on social media and through various channels. This public outcry added pressure on brands to take action and ensure their advertising efforts were not contributing to harmful or undesirable content.
  4. Advertiser Reactions: In the aftermath of these incidents, many brands temporarily suspended or withdrew their advertising from certain platforms, particularly YouTube. They demanded greater transparency and more control over where their ads were displayed. This event caused such a strong reaction from advertisers that it was labeled “The Adpocalypse”.

Brands had to act, and the impact was immediate. Better visibility into ad placements was needed. The concept of Brand Safety quickly arose with a simple premise, avoid the controversial placement and prevent a PR disaster. As time has passed, this has been gradually evolving into a more complex concept known as brand affinity. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the beginnings of brand safety, and it’s impact on digital marketing strategies.

Brand Safety: The Foundation

Brand safety emerged as a response to the growing concerns around the context in which advertisements were appearing. Advertisers were understandably worried about their advertisements being displayed alongside inappropriate or harmful content. Brands demanded for ways to prevent such associations and were primarily focused on avoiding undesirable environments.

From Safety to Affinity: The Transformation of Digital Brand Advertising
Another example of very unfortunate ad placement.

Initially, brand safety measures included exclusion lists, blacklisting specific keywords and websites that were considered high risk. While these efforts were considered essential, they were often too restrictive, causing brands to miss out on valuable opportunities for engagement. These solutions were, effectively, very low tech as they did not take into consideration the quality and intent of the opportunity.

Collateral Damage – The Complexity of Content

The increasing polarization of online discussion spaces, for example, made it increasingly difficult to discern the factuality and intent of the content being evaluated with a rudimentary keyword blocklist. The unintended side effect was that serious publications such as news outlets were seeing a dip in revenue due as advertisers pulled back due to brand safety concerns. The effect was particularly palpable during the COVID-19 pandemic in what came to be labeled by many as a disinformation epidemic.

Contributing quietly to this brand safety dilemma was the prevailing doctrine of targeting the “right message, right person, right time”, in other words, user data-driven programmatic advertising. A practice that stands in contrast to contextual advertising, which aligns ads to the content being consumed, this practice prioritizes collecting behavioral data about the user as they browse the internet and delivering targeted ads, sometimes neglecting the suitability of the content as long as they target the correct user. This lead to a lot of poor quality publishers benefiting while initially undergoing little if no scrutiny at all.

Brand Suitability and the Rise of Machine Learning

Brand suitability marked a shift from strict avoidance tactics to a more balanced approach. It acknowledged that not all content on a flagged website is necessarily harmful or unsuitable. A key example of this would be reputable news sites publishing reporting on a divisive or sensitive issue. With a focus on just brand safety, using an automated keyword block list, they would have their entire domain flagged, despite it not being inherently unsuitable for advertising.

Instead of just blocking out entire categories, brands began to use technology and artificial intelligence to assess content on a more granular level. This approach attempted to determine the suitability of specific pieces of content within a website, channel, or platform. For example, a news site might contain both safe and unsafe content, and with brand suitability tools, advertisers could target their ads to the appropriate sections, ensuring they reached their intended audience without compromising brand safety.

However AI-driven machine learning for brand suitability has missed the mark on multiple occasions. Satirical news site The Onion had it’s content flagged as unsuitable by many brand suitability algorithms, meaning advertisers looking for humor based ad placements were blocked from having their ads appear on the site.

Additionally, industry groups such as were formed with the goal of ameliorating this situation and offer free inclusion lists of trustworthy news publication that advertisers can use.

Bringing it Together – The Emergence of Brand Affinity

As digital marketing continues to evolve, it’s evident that brand suitability is not just about avoiding the negatives but also seeking the positives. The concept of brand affinity takes brand suitability to the next level by focusing on the alignment of a brand’s message and values with the content it’s associated with. Brand affinity emphasizes the creation of meaningful connections with audiences through the context of the content ads are displayed alongside.

Brand affinity opens up a world of possibilities for advertisers. It allows brands to be more strategic about their ad placements, ensuring that they appear in environments that not only protect their reputation, but also enhance it.

This can be seen in several studies on the benefits of increasing brand affinity. According to a report by GroupM, relevant ad placements can lead to a 2-4 times higher click-through rate compared to non-relevant placements. Another study by IPG Media Lab and Magna found that ads aligned with suitable content led to a 74% increase in purchase intent and a 30% increase in brand favorability.

The Benefits of Increasing Brand Affinity

  1. Improved Audience Engagement: By aligning with content that resonates with the brand’s values, advertisers can tap into the emotions and interests of their target audience, resulting in higher engagement.
  2. Enhanced Brand Image: Brands can position themselves as thought leaders, advocates, or supporters of relevant causes by being present in content that reflects their values.
  3. Optimized Ad Spend: Advertisers can make their budget go further by ensuring their ads are seen by audiences who are more likely to convert.
  4. Long-Term Relationships: Brand affinity can foster loyalty and long-term relationships with consumers who share the brand’s values and interests.

Enhanced Contextual Advertising

Brand suitability has evolved from being merely a protective measure to a strategic tool for advertisers to create meaningful connections with their target audience with brand affinity. Advertisers who focus on campaigns with solid brand affinity are likely to see a significant boost in their digital marketing efforts, as they forge deeper connections with their audiences and reinforce their brand image.

This rebirth of contextual advertising has encouraged a departure from audience based marketing, adapting to shifting public preferences, regulatory changes, and the ever changing ad fraud landscape (like Made-For-Advertising Websites). There are many checkboxes to tick in order to get a programmatic campaign right, and it pays to start with a focus on the relationship between your ad placements and the content they are in.