Brand safety is a moral imperative

It's time to take the high ground, says GroupM's EMEA brand safety manager.

Brands are usually launched to fanfare with a clear purpose that includes a way to improve the world, or at the very least the lives of the people who buy their product or service.

Failure to behave consistently with that purpose within advertising naturally impacts consumer perception. In fact, research from Brands Taking Stands 2019 found that 66% of younger consumers say that a brand’s association with a social cause or platform positively impacts their overall impression of a brand.

Additionally, research from the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, ‘Brands and Social Media’, found that 47% of respondents believe that points of view which appear near a brand’s advertising are an indication of that brand’s values. Forty-eight percent said it’s a brand’s own fault if its advertising appears next to hate speech, violent or sexually inappropriate content.

Having a worthy brand purpose doesn’t reduce the risk of damaged reputation if a brand appears adjacent to harmful content. Where you advertise is important and broad responsibility is what counts with today’s consumers. Media investment decisions have become brand safety decisions, and increasingly yield discussions about public safety, which is threatened by issues such as fake news or hate speech.

From a pure media buying point of view, a marketer must consider their risk tolerance.  Buying cheaper media from unknown publishers through open networks may result in frequent inappropriate adjacencies. Are they willing to risk this for a lower cost of media? There are consequences such as funding an illegal network or having ads placed in non-viewable environments. But, perhaps the most important consideration for a marketer is: what are the social consequences for how I advertise, and does it fit my brand’s purpose?

The issues are often complex, but arguably the advertising industry needs to ask what level of responsibility it is willing to accept on these issues or whether its best left in the hands of the regulators. For example, there are reams of research about fake news indicating that consumers are more likely to share and disseminate fake news than real news. Is it really the job of the advertising industry to work toward minimising fake news?

To an extent, government regulation has already started. Around the world, legislation aimed at taking harmful content down is emerging. And, the problem with regulation is that it is usually very limited in scope. Often, it targets only one angle of an issue, often with unintended consequences.

But fake news is just one example of the issues we face. Others include hate speech, online piracy, obscenity, adult content and ad fraud. Even in areas such as privacy – where we already have the GDPR and the incoming ePrivacy Regulation – regulators can see scope for rules that are more specific and limiting.

According to the latest research from Harris Poll and Double Verify, nearly 90% of consumers feel that brands bear responsibility for ensuring their ads run beside content that is safe. What is even more telling is that 61% users believe that both the brand and the hosting platform are equally responsible to keep the content safe.  

Industry cooperation on this topic has already started. In June, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media was launched by 17 leading world’s advertisers, agencies, platforms and media companies. GroupM is proud to support this initiative in cooperation with our partners from the World Federation of Advertisers. It’s a brilliant start – but there’s so much more to be done.

If we want to be a trusted industry, then increasingly we will have to make moral decisions when it comes to advertising and always consider the consequences for public safety. Paraphrasing Immanuel Kant, not following the moral choice is self-defeating, and arguably even more so for the advertising industry with consumer trust at stake.

Stevan Randjelovic is the brand safety manager of GroupM EMEA.

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