Brand Safety and Why it’s Important to Advertisers

Posted by Mike Ernst

Imagine a family-friendly advertisement for Disney appearing as pre-roll for a YouTube video with adult content. Does that thought make you cringe a bit?

As consumers increasingly turn to streaming and the internet to get their content, it is becoming more important for brands to put guardrails in place. What they create is just as important as where it’s seen. This practice is called brand safety.

Brand safety is the practice of regulating where your ads are seen. Here’s an example: Ted visits your website. He adds a Disney movie to his shopping cart for his nephew, but doesn’t follow through with the purchase.

Since Ted engaged with your content, he will be served your ads as he browses on the internet. Later that evening Ted visits a website with unsavory content, your ad is served to him, and now your brand is associated with that content, too. This also applies to YouTube pre-roll and other forms of digital content.

Brand safety is not just for wholesome brands like Disney that don’t want to associate with unsavory content. In today’s climate, brands are also thinking about fake news sites and other propaganda that do not fit with their mission, vision and values.

Thinking around digital has grown rapidly over recent years. According to the Nielsen CMO Report, many brands are willing to invest and learn about brand safety. And 80% expect to increase their investment in marketing analytics over the next 12 months.

This might be because this lesson has been learned the hard way. In recent years, several large brands have faced public relations disasters as a result of poorly placed digital ads. A blow to a brand’s reputation is not just a short-term crisis. It can create irreparable damage and have a long-term effect on a company’s bottom line.

While controlling where your digital ads appear is important, it’s not as straightforward as it seems. Unless you’re doing a direct buy through the publisher, your ads will appear wherever you audience chooses to browse. Therein lies the problem.

There are control tactics that you can use, although they all feature pros and cons. Here are a few that our media team uses with our clients:

Keyword Detection—Filters out content at the category and article level.

  • PROS: Prevents unwanted content adjacencies.
  • CONS: Increases difficulty of communicating with key audiences.


Blacklists—Filters out websites based on the content they distribute.

  • PROS: Prevents distribution of ads in contaminated environments.
  • CONS: Will decrease deliverable impressions.


Whitelists—Only uses preapproved trusted partners and sites.

  • PROS: Nearly eliminates contact with infectious content.
  • CONS: Will significantly impact reach and impressions.


Direct Buy from Publishers— Limits campaign exposure to a few trusted partners.

  • PROS: Direct relationships can lead to higher quality of ad schedule.
  • CONS: Premium pricing and potential for hard news exposure.


Third Party Solutions—Employs services such as DoubleVerify and others to assist with delivering on brand safety.

  • PROS: Allows for monitoring vital statistics.
  • CONS: Can add to CPM.

At GS&F, we raise the issue of brand safety to our clients and work closely together to determine the right balance for their needs. Sometimes we can achieve our goal with limited and targeted direct buys. Other times, a Google display ad or programmatic buy will ensure ads don’t appear with questionable content.

In the future, we can expect to see more honest conversations about how brand safety measures or melds with audience delivery, campaign costs and ROI. Brands will have to determine their tolerance level—and a qualified agency partner can help.

Brand safety issues will never be 100% solved, but they can be effectively minimized and managed.