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Brand Safety in the Age of COVID-19

Brand safety concerns tied to COVID-19 have led to a decline in ad spend in many cases. But what in normal times might be reasonable concerns about brand safety can be counterproductive at a time when things are anything but normal – especially when news sources, in particular, need funding to produce critical information for a concerned public.

Brand Safety vs Brand Suitability

Brand safety is about protecting a brand’s reputation when they advertise, by not placing their ads next to inappropriate content. However, defining inappropriate content can be complicated, so a more nuanced approach is needed. “Brand suitability” focuses on matching a brand’s values to the context of the content that might surround their ads. A common example used to illustrate this point is avoiding placement for an airline ad on a news report about a plane crash. The news report clearly is not inherently “unsafe,” but might not be “suitable” for an airplane ad.

As a more problematic example, blocking on the keyword “WHO” (World Health Organization) could block any content where the word “who” is mentioned—which would be a lot! Similarly, blocking on the keyword “quarantine” will block all content with that word, even when the sentiment is positive, such as for an article on “keeping kids entertained in quarantine” or “10 delicious recipes to try during quarantine”.

What Brands Should Do Now

Brands should consider verification vendors that offer sentiment analysis (positive use of negative keywords) or contextual analysis (type of publisher, location or section on a page, etc.). These classifier-based tools are readily available, more dynamic, and take less work than a detailed focus on keyword blocking.

These vendors can show you what to do, and most can even help you adapt the tools so they’re easy for your teams to use.

Also, the 4A’s APB (Advertiser Protection Bureau) guidance about the concepts of brand safety floor and suitability include guidelines for low, medium, and high tolerance levels for various news categories. These guidelines encourage brands, agencies, and verification vendors to work together to customize their processes. This effort is tied to IAB Tech Lab’s Content Taxonomy, further described below.

We urge marketers and agencies to learn more about brand safety-related features that already exist. For example, the “Content URL” already available in standards like OpenRTB and Open Measurement (keeping in mind Special Category Data considerations). This feature allows verification vendors to do better sentiment analysis.

“Content Channel” and “Content Type” vectors/modifiers in the IAB Tech Lab’s Content Taxonomy also allow for a far richer understanding of the type of content tied to an impression and can help drive additional intelligence in brand suitability decisions.

What Vendors and Publishers Should Do

Our members have indicated that brand safety is a priority for them, so IAB Tech Lab has ramped up efforts on related standards.

We’re updating the Content Taxonomy and working to incorporate the 4A’s brand floor and suitability recommendations. Efforts are also underway to update the categories in the Content Taxonomy to better support news content. Vendors and publishers can and should help. Many currently use their own proprietary taxonomies, which makes managing campaigns across organizations difficult . If you’re a vendor or publisher, consider adopting the Content Taxonomy of mapping proprietary categories to this standard taxonomy.

In a related effort, we are looking at ideas such as building a “truth set” of content or other mechanisms to ensure that content is categorized consistently across various organizations. Currently, publishers and verification vendors have their own processes to determine the categories associated with any piece of content. This makes it difficult for buyers to build a consistent process around brand safety/suitability. Tech Lab is already working with organizations like Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) to help build consistency across various platforms, but there is value in building a technical test or a compliance program to better support this consistency. We are also working with organizations such as TAG and JICWEBS that provide certifications around ad-fraud, malware, and brand safety, as well as the Local Media Consortium (LMC) and Brand Safety Institute (BSI) who have made the case for white-listing known “safe” local news publishers. We support them by enriching their data with the Content Taxonomy and with anti-ad-fraud tools, including app-ads/ads.txt, sellers.json and OpenRTB’s SupplyChain object, to help ensure that the entire supply chain is also transparent and safe. This helps ensure that brands are more comfortable buying on these channels.

Next Steps

Ad spend is vital to supporting news, especially news that (literally) saves lives. We can address brands’ concerns while maintaining the media’s efforts to keep the world informed by offering the following recommendations.

  1. Avoid planning a blanket block of news content and publishers. Such blockage also blocks your ads from some of the largest and most engaged audiences in history since so many people are transfixed by Coronavirus news.
  2. Build relevant/suitable creatives. Make sure that the creative assets you’re deploying aren’t tone deaf to how much people’s lives have changed. For example, avoid images of people gathering in crowded venues or violating social distance. A creative reset will improve brand safety more than anything else!
  3. Learn about and use tools judiciously. Simple keyword blocking can strangle what could otherwise be an effective ad campaign. Instead, use more sophisticated tools like contextual and sentiment analysis.
  4. Learn about the floor, suitability, and taxonomy efforts and use these concepts to inform your decisions.
Publishers, SSPs, DSPs, Verification vendors
  1. Build better and more nuanced tools. Improve usability and promote features that offer smart controls.
  2. Build better content, products, and ad experiences in general.
  3. Embrace the use of the standard Content Taxonomy and use anti-ad fraud tools like ads.txt, sellers.json, and SupplyChain object.

Lastly, we invite all relevant companies to join two new groups being formed around brand safety:

  1. IAB’s Data Center of Excellence will begin recruiting a new Brand Safety and Suitability Working Group to present use cases and best practices in a world after COVID-19.
  2. IAB Tech Lab will be forming a “Brand Safety Task Force” that will guide brand safety related efforts/standards across the various Tech Lab working groups.

“News saves lives!”

As IAB President David Cohen said in a blog post, we must support news content now more than ever. “It is absolutely necessary.”

You can do that and keep your brands safe. Please contact us at for more information about how we can help.


Amit Shetty
Senior Director, Product
IAB Tech Lab