Brand safety and suitability: Restoring choice to advertising industry stakeholders in digital media

Brand safety and suitability: Restoring choice to advertising industry stakeholders in digital media

Industry issues
4 minute read

The Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) has been working hard over the last three years to help marketers protect brand reputation. Rob Rakowitz, WFA Initiative Lead for GARM, explains how the tools put transparency and choice back into the industry.

Article details

  • Author:Rob Rakowitz
    Initiative Lead, Global Alliance for Responsible Media
14 November 2022

Through an economic lens, the digital media marketplace is imperfect, marked by information asymmetry. As much as marketers and business leaders tout the ability to measure everything you can about a digital media campaign – much of it unimportant – there is also opacity – especially when you are an ad buyer. 

Imagine being asked to walk into a supermarket, go down an unmarked aisle, told to pick up an unmarked tin and then being told that you must eat it. You have no idea if it is stuffed grape leaves, or petfood, or if it is past its expiry date. Bon appetit! 

Before GARM – the Global Alliance for Responsible Media – was established by the WFA and backed the ANA, ISBA, 4A’s, P&G, Unilever, Mars, Diageo, Mastercard and GroupM in 2019 – the digital advertising industry was pretty much as described above.

Enter the GARM Brand Safety and Suitability Framework, launched in September 2020 and updated this June. This framework establishes sensitive content categories and different levels of risk that span from demonetization to selecting placement preferences. It also serves as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for the whole industry in terms of monetization, measurement, and controls for ad placement.

We needed to take these steps because there was an overswing of the pendulum towards reach-based media planning and buying.

Collectively we over-invested in audience buying and programmatic – chasing an unrealistic CPM that had been forced onto the agency by advertiser demands for cheaper media. Such imaginary prices could often only be found in the dark corners of the ecosystem – creating issues around fraud, brand safety and non-human traffic.

Correspondingly, platforms saw cheap avenues to growth through questionable practices that saw lax policies on content moderation, content monetization and in the worst cases grew from polarizing content in a ‘harmful content flywheel.’

Together we learned that reach at no cost is reach at all cost.

There’s been much collective work to address these issues, and we are thankful that the industry is working together on correcting the issues of transparency and control as it relates to content safety and suitability for advertisers.

This work by GARM isn’t about addressing freedom of expression and illegal content. These are platform safety issues and we’ve been consistent that these are the domain expertise of civil society groups, politicians, and regulators.

The tragic and preventable suicide of teenager Molly Russell in the UK should weigh heavily on all industry participants – and she is only one face of the harms that uncategorized content can lead to when it is both harmful and uncontrolled. As concerned citizens, we are pleased to see regulators in London, Brussels and Canberra take this up. Hopefully Washington follows.

Our work, on the other hand, is about empowering advertising buyers and sellers to make the choices that are the most appropriate for them.

For ad buyers – be they advertiser or agency – it provides increased transparency and control over the content they want to appear next to. This is vital because there are huge differences between brands seeking to support refugees and those trying to drive mental availability for toilet roll. An effort to support refugees would ostensibly be comfortable in content that has graphic depictions or discussions of war, for example. You can imagine the converse for the toilet roll brand.

For ad sellers – whether a platform or an ad-tech partner – it provides essential categorization tools that allow them to better monetize content. Moreover, it should be a means of making sure that platform advertising business models avoid harmful content and toxic engagement. Each of the GARM member platforms have endorsed the GARM Brand Safety Floor, much of it already in line with platform consumer and content policies.

There’s been a significant drift away from the core tenets of brand safety; there is abuse of it by activists who are politically biased, there’s misrepresentations of it by skeptics who see it as a means of suppressing freedom of expression. It’s everything but these things – and to the misinformed, we urge you to engage and learn.

Ask yourself, would you ever go into a supermarket and eat that unmarked tin?

Then ask yourself, would you ever place an ad in an unmarked placement?

I didn’t think so.

This is why brand safety for advertisers is non-negotiable. The progress we have made since 2019 must be safeguarded and advanced.

Protection of consumers and empowerment.

Protection of advertisers and empowerment.

It’s that simple.

There are practical steps that all advertisers can take today, informed by GARM best practices:

  1. Drive cross-functional alignment across media, procurement, and corporate affairs on brand suitability preferences with your media agency;
  2. Ensure that media campaigns have targeting and adjacency settings driven by the GARM Brand Safety Floor + Suitability Framework and Adjacency Standards Framework and are used by advertiser, agency, ad-tech partners, and platforms;
  3. Review and interrogate brand safety and suitability guidelines to chase out unintended bias and ensure your campaign is reflective of your values, referencing the WFA DEI Playbook best practices on inclusion and exclusion lists.

Finally, participants have also found the GARM training sessions hugely helpful. There’s lots of advice and case studies included.

Article details

  • Author:Rob Rakowitz
    Initiative Lead, Global Alliance for Responsible Media
14 November 2022

Contact us

For more information or questions, please contact us