This post is part of 3Q’s Brand Protection series, in which we tackle a range of issues to help companies safeguard their most important asset: their brand’s reputation. For a full list of posts, click here

Throughout the most recent Presidential election and the months since inauguration, two issues in particular have been extremely prevalent from a media standpoint: “fake news” and inflammatory extremist websites. Information is still coming out about the effect of bot-/troll-created propaganda on the election, and extremist websites continue to pop up and publish ever-more-insulting content, to the chagrin of web hosting companies. One might understandably think that these are recent developments, but in reality, this election just lit a  spotlight on a nagging problem for advertisers that existed well before the era of WikiLeaks, PizzaGate, and Breitbart, and extends far beyond politics.

brand protection

Many brands have shared how, unbeknownst to them, their ads have appeared on controversial and inappropriate sites. They didn’t specifically choose to be placed on these websites, but their ads were noticed by the vigilantes of the internet or even their own customers, who in turn caused an uproar on social media. This can be a nightmare for brands who’ve spent millions of dollars building their brand ethos.

Ideally, advertisers would have the ability to evaluate the websites our ads are served on and suppress any URLs that we deem not on par with company standards. However, some platforms don’t allow you to see the list of websites hosting your ad. Additionally, for sites that do allow this access, there can be far too many websites to go through for this to be a practical solution.

So, how can we protect our brand? Here at 3Q Digital, we’ve spent a lot of time putting together guidelines to protect our clients, and we’d like to share some with you. Below are some practical ways in which you can protect your brand reputation online while running programmatic advertising.

  • Firstly, you should blacklist URLs. Advertisers can blacklist specific clickbait, fake news, and controversial websites, thereby avoiding fake news at the URL level. At 3Q, we’ve put together a list of sites both globally and in specific countries to combat domains, and we use these company-wide across all platforms; we recommend companies do the same
    • Platform tips:
      • Facebook and Linkedin both allow you to apply blacklists to a URL list that you upload while running on their ad networks.
      • Twitter only allows exclusions from a list of their provided categories (they do not reveal the specific URLs within those categories, opting to instead just identify a grouping by a category name like “politics”). Twitter also allows exclusions by appID. Be warned that Twitter Audience Platform allows your ads to appear in mobile ads as well as websites. Currently, Twitter does not allow a way to exclude specific URLs or domains.

  • It’s not always possible, but it’s a good idea to use platforms that are proactively working to protect their advertiser’s reputation. For example, AppNexus cut off ads from the “alt-right” publisher Breitbart News, saying it violated its hate speech rules. Publisher-level exclusion like this can improve ad quality and protect brands from having their ads accidentally being shown on fake news and controversial sites.
  • Use platform preset category exclusions. Each platform typically has a list of broad category exclusions that you can check. At 3Q, we check every exclusion on Facebook by default unless our client specifically says they want to leave one unchecked. This gives us an extra layer of confidence that our ads won’t appear alongside content that doesn’t match the advertiser’s brand.

The problem of ads showing up alongside fake news and controversial sites will not change overnight. Instead, it’s a challenge that marketers and agencies must hold themselves and their programmatic partners accountable to in order to continue to protect the brand equity they have worked so hard to build. It’s important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater; automation is not the enemy. Programmatic media buying is the new norm because it’s an efficient and cost effective way to buy ad space, but there’s a fine line that must be noticed: relying too heavily on third parties to manage ad buys increases the brand risk associated with ad fraud and fake news.

This topic will continue to evolve, and it’s important to always stay ahead of it. In the words of George Carlin, “Just ‘cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”

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Vernon Johnson
Vernon started at 3Q in August of 2016 with a background in organic and paid social for higher education and direct response advertising. Originally from Madison, WI, he moved to Chicago for school, met his now-wife, Ashley, and settled in. When he’s not optimizing campaigns he’s cycling, brewing craft coffee, or hanging out with his wife and 1-year-old son, Emerson.