Brand Safety Risk of Advertising with Legacy Publishers

Debate – Brand Safety Risk of Advertising with Legacy Publishers

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Does legitimate news, published by reputable organizations, pose a brand safety risk for brand advertisers? For nearly half of advertisers, the answer is yes. 


According to new data from Advertiser Perceptions, just 53% of advertisers believe that legitimate news does not pose a significant brand safety risk. For others, there is concern that having ads appear next to troubling news content could damage a brand’s value or otherwise cause harm. 

Researchers from Advertiser Perceptions also found that two-thirds of advertisers believe it’s important for advertising to support quality news sources, even though just under half are working for companies that have made it a priority.

What can be done to help regain trust in legacy publishers and improve the advertising ecosystem?

That’s a question that Advertiser Perceptions’ executive vice president of business intelligence Sarah Bolton is working on currently. Bolton is one of a number of industry leaders encouraging advertisers and publishers to work together to build trust in the advertising ecosystem.

“The breakdown in trust is in part due to a breakdown in shared reality of what ad-supported placements within high-quality content are worth,” Bolton says. “The programmatic ecosystem monetizing the longtail of open web inventory has promised advertisers impossibly cheap ad impressions, but for many years the supply chain has been somewhat opaque in terms of where placements run, who actually sees the ads, and who profits from those placements.”

These are clearly troubling times for many digital media publishers, including legacy publications. Just days after news broke that Insider would be cutting 10% of its staff, word spread about the shuttering of BuzzFeed News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning digital news website.

The percentage of global ad spend that goes toward news publishers has been shrinking for years, but with revenue growing slower than expected in 2022, and overall optimism about the media industry taking a hit in early 2023, more publishers are tightening their budgets in anticipation of bigger revenue declines in the months ahead. 

“One obstacle is advertisers’ belief that having their ads appear next to troubling but important and factual news content is always brand-unsafe and would damage brand value,” Bolton says. 

Thankfully, Bolton says she sees evidence that those perceptions are slowly starting to change. She cites new research from IAB showing that advertising in news environments has a positive or neutral impact on 84% of consumers. In Advertiser Perceptions’ own study, 53% of advertisers agreed that “adjacency to reporting on current events that upholds professional journalistic standards does not pose a significant brand safety risk.”

“It seems like every day there’s a new headline about the extent of disinformation flooding our media marketplace, and the harmful effects on a democratic society that relies on informed citizens. Defamation lawsuits — like the Dominion voting case that recently settled, or last year’s Alex Jones case about Sandy Hook conspiracy theories he promoted — are one avenue for directly affected parties to address the problem,” Bolton says. “The more impactful way I see this evolving is more intentional and responsible media investment from the advertiser side. Disinformation has been profitable because it has been monetized by advertising, albeit unwittingly, and as those underlying dynamics have become clearer, restoring more direct and transparent relationships between buyers and sellers will be key.”

It might stand to reason that brands concerned about advertising alongside fake news would be more likely to support quality news sources by advertising on their digital sites. However, Bolton says there are some challenges to that approach, as well.

“Some of it is the practice of buying audiences only — wherever they may be as long as the ad tech says they fit a set of targeting parameters — instead of prioritizing the context where interested people are consuming content,” she says. “The pendulum is starting to swing away from that practice due to privacy implications, however, and now evaluating contextual environments on their own merits is becoming more central to media strategies again.”

Another issue is inertia. The majority of advertisers are not eager to revisit the role of automation within their campaign buying and management systems. Bolton says entrenched brand safety practices have steered advertisers into blunt keyword blocking without contextual nuance, and in some cases, even category-level blocking the entire news category. 

Now, in order to support quality news sources, advertisers will need to flip the model and start with inclusion lists at the site-level for publishers they want to align with. 

“This means establishing upfront a manually-vetted inclusion list of sites and programs that adhere to journalistic standards,” Bolton says. “There are third-party verification solutions that provide information integrity scores to help in that process, but the bottom line is it requires human decision-making in addition to machines.”

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.