Expert insights on brand safety amid COVID-19 crisis

"Advertisers need a more robust approach to identify content devoid of any risk to brand safety."

While it may be tempting for marketers to block coronavirus-related news due to brand safety concerns, media experts believe there may be a better strategy. 

All publishers are writing about COVID-19 right now, and consumers are consumed with the content. Many advertisers have historically blocked all news, so where does necessary - yet potentially risky - content around the ongoing pandemic fit in? 

Campaign US asked media industry experts to weigh in on the topic. 

How should brands and agencies adapt brand safety measures during the coronavirus crisis?


Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital and Global Brand Safety Officer, UM

If there’s an optimistic way to refer to the moment we’re in, it’s "adapting." Learning how to adapt to the change that has been thrust upon us all. When it comes brand safety, there are three core areas where brands and agencies need to adapt: 1. Messaging; 2. Responsible Investment; and 3. Brand Safety Controls.

Advertisers need to be more self-aware of how and what they say in creative as much as where their ad appears. Advertising creative that is not appropriate to the moment (e.g., displays behaviors inconsistent with social distancing or lacks empathy) carries a brand safety risk. This requires bringing your creative agency into your brand safety conversations.

As the advertising market adapts, advertisers have a responsibility to be more thoughtful on where they invest their dollars and what their ad investment funds. Responsible investment means thinking about the value and impact of the free content your ad dollars support.  Advertising’s ability to contribute to social good, providing people free access to reputable quality content, inclusive of news, is critically important during economic uncertainty.

Lastly, Brand Safety Controls, specifically the temptation to avoid terms such as "Coronavirus" and "COVID-19," must be reviewed. "Coronavirus" and "COVID-19" will be a part of our collective shared discourse for the foreseeable future. Every publisher is writing about this topic; because the impact is so deep and broad, the phrases are unavoidable. Brands can and will need to be part of this content and conversation, so adapt your brand safety controls now.


Helen Lin, Chief Digital Officer, Publicis Media

Brand safety has been front and center for years, but with the surge of content and ad impressions surrounding COVID-19, the conversation has turned to brand suitability. 

While news consumption is surging, news avoidance by advertisers is a growing issue as brands can be weary of appearing alongside "hard news" that they fear isn’t brand suitable. But in fact, 90% of people respond favorably or neutrally to ads appearing next to serious information like COVID-19.

It’s important to overturn the belief that news is not brand safe or suitable. Advertisers, agencies, verification companies and publishers must collaborate to set new suitability controls for news so marketers can feel confident when reaching important audiences, and this important information channel is sustained. Our work with the 4A’s Cross-Industry Call to Action on Brand Suitability provides new standards for contextual analysis of news and delivers best practices around keywords/keyword blocking. 

Finally, as agencies work closely with clients on responsible consumer messaging, where possible, they should work with publishers and tech providers on PSAs for inventory donations when impressions don’t meet advertiser brand safety or suitability requirements. This has proven to be a critical strategy in preventing the spread of misinformation. 


John Montgomery, EVP, Global Brand Safety, GroupM

Throughout this pandemic, GroupM Brand Safety continues to encourage our clients and agencies to take a nuanced approach in using avoidance technologies. Outside of articles focused solely on death, death tolls, miracle cures and virus-related disinformation, there may only be minimal risk associated with advertising in "hard" news environments.

Much of the discussion has centered around the aggressive use of semantic avoidance technology, which is actually not the enemy. These technologies can actually make it easier for advertisers to support news by enabling each marketer to identify their own sense of brand suitability. Without these tools many marketers may avoid news altogether. 

We advise our clients and agencies to reconsider blocking news. Your agency can help determine your appetite for news scale. If hard news is a worry, there are viable alternatives; however, news may be fine, just with a light level of support for "hard" news.

Also, reconsider the use of an avoidance strategy, taking into account the keywords or categories you are excluding and how that may influence the campaign and disadvantage high quality, legitimate publishers.


Jonathan Anselmo, Chief Digital Officer, Omnicom Media Group

The COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t be changing how brands go about ensuring brand safety.  The same safeguards and approaches should be in place now, just as they were before the crisis; building/maintaining trusted inclusion lists, regular auditing of delivery on the more open inventory sources, working directly with trusted premium content partners, etc.  

That being said, brand suitability is something that clients should be considering.  

Many clients have historically avoided news content given its often divisive nature. Not surprisingly, this crisis has driven consumers to news content in flocks, leading to triple digit consumption growth, almost overnight, for many news outlets.  

There is no avoiding the fact that consumers’ eyeballs, headspace and entire life is centered around the current crisis. Clients that have historically avoided news content may want to consider how they can play in these areas – particularly if they can carve out ways to be supportive or provide additive value during these rough times.  If executed correctly, this current market could provide unique opportunities to connect with the entirety of the nation in such a personal way that it could provide long-term value for years to come. The key to success will be ensuring a truly strategic, genuine, empathic and aligned approach. While these should be key tenets of all marketing approaches, the current nature of the world around us requires us to be even more vigilant in ensuring we deliver on them.


Jeremy Steinberg, Global Head of Ecosystem, MediaMath

Brand safety is top of mind for every digital marketer and these concerns are multiplied in the wake of COVID-19. Advertisers have taken tactical steps to protect their brand’s image and reputation. Many brands have blocked the increasing amount of news content related to COVID-19 for fear of being associated with the more frightening and tragic aspects of the pandemic. However, much of the published content contains information that is beneficial to the public—new guidelines for social distancing and safety, testing sites and resources—and is, therefore, still safe to advertise on. The result of rising advertising inventory supply with stalled demand and content that frightens advertisers is that as people pursue quality information on quality publishers, the traffic is growing, but ads are not meeting those consumers.

Advertisers need a more robust approach to identify content devoid of any risk to brand safety. Brands and their agencies should continue advertising and avoid the blunt-force decision of global keyword blocking entire swaths of news. Instead, advertisers can adopt tailored approaches to brand safety, relying on data analytics and machine learning to assess the context in which keywords appear. Tools such as augmented URL classification systems and page classification engines enable marketers to see ad inventory at the page level, unlocking opportunities that are otherwise hidden by global keyword blacklists. Not only does this approach to brand safety help advertisers maintain brand presence with consumers, but it also dramatically improves the monetization of publisher properties.

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