Over the past few years, consumers have started holding advertisers’ feet over the fire, forcing them to be more conscious about ethics in advertising and intentional about the content they use, the teams behind the campaigns, and overall investments in media. Our newly launched podcast, What the AdTech: Let’s Talk Responsible Advertising, will feature thought-provoking, honest, and raw conversations with some of today’s top marketing minds about the future of ethics in advertising and what it means for marketers, publishers, and consumers today. Be sure to check out the first episode, second episode, third episode, and fourth episode if you haven’t already.

The fifth What the Adtech podcast episode delves into brand safety, an umbrella term that refers to protecting a brand’s image and reputation by avoiding inappropriate materials when advertising. At one time, this simply meant making sure travel ads didn’t appear alongside articles about airline crashes, but with advances in technology, the growth of social media, and changes in our political climate, brand safety has become much more complex. Today, brands are trying to assess whether a site offers quality journalism or fake news; they want to make sure their ads don’t appear next to hate speech. But there can be significant downsides to this hypervigilance, especially when brands shy away from advertising on any news sites as a result. 

To address this complicated topic, host Somer Simpson draws on the expertise of Claire Atkin, co-founder of Check My Ads, and Cedar Milazzo, CEO and founder of Nobl Media, who offer their perspectives on why the missteps of big tech have led to this “misinformation crisis” and how we can solve it. 

According to Claire, “marketers and advertisers have given up the power over their own campaigns” to vendors who reassuringly offer brand safety solutions like blocklists and context control, but the unintended repercussions can include “defunding small journalism operations and giving white nationalists a hall pass.” Cedar sees it as an even broader problem, with “really large [news] outlets” being cut off from funding as well. He cautions, “If we want to have a functioning democracy, we really need that information. People can’t make any sort of decisions without strong reporting and strong journalism. And without the ad dollars out there to support it, there’s a real problem with being able to fund that hard work.” 

Clair Atkin
“This is about the advertiser’s choice in where they place their ads, and that choice has been taken away from them.”
Claire Atkin
Check My Ads

When marketers rely on allow lists, block lists, and brand safety vendors that block ads from appearing on categories of content without personal oversight, it becomes a form of “brand safety washing,” Claire explains, which might sound good on paper but doesn’t actually accomplish anything—or, in fact, makes things worse. Marketers end up blocking certain publications, and therefore audiences, as a result. And they often still end up on inappropriate sites. Claire argues that by giving up control over ad placement, marketers are giving up “control over the most important thing, which is where our brand is associating [and] who our brand is associating with.” She explains: “This is about the advertiser’s choice in where they place their ads, and that choice has been taken away from them. And when you affect the advertiser’s free speech, that’s far worse than what we’re doing, which is calling attention to the fact that their free speech is not being respected.” Claire encourages brands to demand transparency, so they can see exactly where their ads are appearing. 

Cedar suggests that brands take a more proactive approach, making choices about where they want to spend their ad dollars, so we can “incentivize high-quality content and disincentivize misinformation and other types of toxic content.” Ideally, he promotes “making sure that advertisers, who are supporting the free internet and basically making it available for all of us, are spending their money responsibly in a way that helps society but also helps themselves to connect with their audiences as well.”

Cedar Milazzo Ceo Nobl
“We’re looking to incentivize high-quality content and disincentivize misinformation and other types of toxic content.”
Cedar Milazzo
CEO and founder,
Nobl Media

Listen to the entire fifth episode to hear more about:

  • Why the current adtech approach to brand safety resembles a massive game of Whack a Mole
  • How bias in brand safety tools and a lack of context can lead to advertisers blocking LGBTQ+ and black-owned publications
  • How brands can be more responsible with their advertising dollars
  • Why advertising on reputable news sources leads to positive brand uplift
  • Why and how the adtech industry needs to change to fight misinformation and make high-quality content more valuable, thereby benefiting marketers, publishers, consumers, and society as a whole 

Learn more
Grab your headphones and join us for Season 1. You can listen to the full fifth episode here and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, and Stitcher.