THE BLOG
10/14/2014 03:22 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

The Wild Wild West of Brand Safety

When the Internet stomped down its size 22 shoe and declared itself the new king of content back in the 1990s, it did more than expand information and connect the unconnected. The Internet took the comfy cozy world of advertising and shook it to its core.

Before the World Wide Web convinced everyone that it was more than "a fad," advertisers relied heavily on television and print placements, where they knew exactly where their advertisements would appear at any given moment. With magazines, ads are placed based off an editorial calendar set forth by the publisher, usually months in advance. Television advertisements are based off time slots sold by networks. Both mediums have a clear line of communication between advertisers and publishers/producers, providing actual full transparency for ad placement. In these mediums, minimum brand safety issues exist. If there is ever a worry or objection, the process of ad placement can be shifted or stopped before the ad runs.

But the 1990s gave us more than just Vanilla Ice and Drakkar Noir--it gave us the Internet and simultaneously threw everything advertisers knew, out the window. The astronomical amount of content and outlets the Internet produces is mindboggling when you consider its size and scope. Neither one person nor one company can monitor the hundreds of thousands of sites ads can appear on. Because of the pure vastness of the Internet, ad buys became network buys. An ad network-- even working with a slim 500-1000 different sites related to a subject like sports--gave advertisers the opportunity to make one bulk buy and target a huge number of consumers.

It also allowed publishers to receive a diverse array of advertisements (excluding those bounce and shake ads that after over 20 years, somehow still exist), taking small audiences and making them large by combining the buy across multiple sites in targeted ways. Then the concept evolved further: real time bidding, buy side platforms and sell side platforms took the newfound ad network and gave it real intelligence, enhanced capabilities, reach, targeting and efficiency. It's a win-win for all parties, right?

Wrong. Where is the transparency? Where are the ads running? Advertisers often cannot possibly know. Digital content changes daily--even hourly. Ad buyers can't keep track of all these sites, ads or buy occurring in less than milliseconds. Instead, they're trading a longer, safer approval process for a quicker, easier, unsafe one.

Brand safety--once a non-issue--is now the main issue and as the ad-buying systems have evolved into almost-instantaneous, machine-oriented and programmatic monoliths, the problem has escalated. Buys are now bid and bought in real time. And while this technology is smarter, backed by extreme data, intense algorithms and intelligent audience understanding--it doesn't automatically mean every consumer is perfectly selected. There are countless examples to stand by this. Just look at these cringe-worthy banner ad placement fails:

•A banner ad for the complete first season of Dead Like Me appearing alongside the NYTimes.com "Obituaries in the News" section.
•On the same page as a story titled "Coffee Might Trigger First Heart Attack in Some" appears a Folgers ad encouraging viewers to "enjoy a second cup."
•A stunning photo of the Greece coastline offering up "a mini-break in gorgeous Greece" is juxtaposed to a story titled, "Violence continues in Greece as rioters firebomb buildings."

The examples go on and on and on to the point that there is probably a Buzzfeed slide show dedicated to it. While programmatic methodologies do produce smarter ad placement, it doesn't mean brand safety isn't an issue. In fact, it can often place companies and their ads in a bad light, as the average consumer doesn't necessarily understand that these companies are not placing the ads themselves. While banner ad examples run rampant, that doesn't mean this isn't happening with digital video advertisements. Where are the examples? Well, as you can imagine, ad agencies and companies aren't exactly thrilled about these brand safety fumbles. While banner ads are easier to share, online video ads are more difficult to capture and spread. But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, it just means that they are harder to find and more importantly, to document.

Imagine a liquor commercial following a news story about a teenage drunk driving accident or a McDonalds commercial after an obesity study report. These video brand safety issues can easily occur and while they are rather similar to the display ad failures, commercials and videos carry far more emotional appeal with consumers. When safely placed, these emotive experiences can create positive, constructive experiences. However, once brand safety is compromised, it can be even more detrimental than a banner ad flub, as the emotional meter can dip down into a dark place, potentially enraging consumers to the point of action.

Despite these brand safety flubs and failures, programmatic isn't by itself at fault. Programmatic is unarguably the best and most efficient way for advertisers to target consumers. Unfortunately, it opens itself up to brand safety setbacks, as programmatic is so unburdened by latency that ad agencies can't possibly know exactly what is on a site at any given millisecond.

The truth is, digital brand safety is still a work in progress. There are currently sacrifices being made in order to better target consumers. These sacrifices aren't ideal, but it just leaves room for innovators to make ads safe across the Wild Wild West that is the Interwebs. With the ability to pair content experiences and ad targeting, you would then have context to a user's experience. So that if, for example, a company could algorithmically differentiate a video title with the keyword "erect" in it, when the context is "Erect your First Sandcastle," ad platforms would be able to play a LEGO ad instead of a Cialis ad. We laugh, but as a new father, if I could only tell you some of the ads that have been shown to my daughter and I before watching cartoon clips without fear of litigation from some ad agency, you would embrace how systemic the problem actually is.

The reality is that innovative companies are just now getting to the point where context is a mathematically and logically derived variable in the equation of video consumption, but how that is accepted and utilized will be the supreme determinant of the direction of that technology. It comes down to volume versus quality. We came to the same inflection point with banner ads, and volume won. Now with video, time will tell but the odds seem to be on the side of quality. Let the Web's redemption begin!