Omar Oakes
Apr 15, 2020

Majority of online coronavirus content is 'brand safe'

As industry experts continue to call on advertisers to stop the blunt tool of keyword blacklisting against coronavirus news, what could marketers do instead to stay brand safe?

Keyword blacklisting for 'Covid-19'
Keyword blacklisting for 'Covid-19'

The majority of online content containing coronavirus keywords is safe for brand advertising, new research has revealed. Keyword blacklisting is a tool that automatically blocks ads from appearing alongside content that mentions certain words, such as "coronavirus" or "COVID-19".

AI media company GumGum found that 62% of nearly three million web pages containing COVID-19-related keywords are classfied as "safe", following a study using its machine-learning-based content analysis and brand-safety engine, Verity.

Verity identified 2.85 million unique web pages that contained relevant coronavirus keywords across GumGum’s publisher network between 25 March and 6 April. Brands that rely on keyword-based systems for brand-safety protections would have been blocked from these pages because they contained at least one of the words "covid", "covid19", "covid-19", "covid 19", "coronavirus", "corona virus", "pandemic" or "quarantine".

However, the system deemed about 1.5 million of these pages as "brand safe", according to multi-model natural language processing and computer vision analysis. This works by putting together eight machine-learning models that are trained to evaluate threat levels to brand safety.

The system is able to account for a particular brand category’s presumed risk-aversion (for example, whether a finance brand is more brand-safety sensitive than a fashion brand) but, for this research, assumes the threat sensitivity of an "average Fortune 100 brand".   

GumGum chief technology officer Ken Weiner insisted that even when researchers apply the most conservative settings, more than half the content analysed is "safe". 

Weiner said: "Coronavirus is touching every facet of society, so it’s hardly surprising that even the most innocuous content references it. Keyword blocking just goes way too far, which is why people are calling for whitelisting of specific websites. That mindset shows what’s wrong with the way people think about brand safety these days. The idea that you have to choose between reach and safety is false. Our industry needs to wake up to what’s technologically available."  

Weiner noted that GumGum’s analysis shows that the pages containing COVID-related keywords in certain popular IAB content categories (pictured, below) are particularly safe.

Brand safety alternatives to coronavirus keyword blocking

News brands in the UK have complained that as much as £50m in online advertising revenue may be lost due to coronavirus keyword blacklisting. This is despite 90% of readers responding "favourably or neutrally" to ads appearing next to serious information about subjects such as COVID-19, according to Publicis Media’s chief digital officer, Helen Lin. 

According to Damon Reeve, chief executive of the joint-newsbrands sales venture The Ozone Project, some advertisers have paused and moved their activity in the last few weeks, while others have moved spend into addressable environments and have adapted their creative to suit the current situation.

"The #BackdontBlock industry-wide initiative from Newsworks has stimulated really positive discussions and support from agencies, advertisers and, as we've now seen, the government," Reeve said. "The next step is to see that support convert into positive action. Of course, #BackdontBlock helps publishers, but it's also critical for brands too. By blocking trusted and quality editorial environments that are publishing many positive articles about life during coronavirus times, advertisers will inadvertently push their media spend into unregulated and unknown long-tail content, which ironically puts their brand at greater risk."

Campaign’s UK editor-in-chief Gideon Spanier described it as a "cruel paradox" that news publishers and broadcasters are suffering, despite having an important civic value as trusted sources of information, while online and streaming giants have prospered in relative terms.  

Last week, the digital culture media and sport secretary Oliver Dowden wrote a strongly-worded letter to major brands, stating that there is a "need for pragmatism and to do everything possible to prevent an irreversible decline in news publishing". Dowden warned that the impact on ad revenues for news brands would have "far-reaching" consequences for everyone, including advertisers. 

So what should advertisers do instead?

Instead of keyword blacklisting, GumGum CTO Weiner recommends advertising on content categories such as technology, pop culture and video-gaming. "You’ll get plenty of reach, and over 80% of their COVID-related content is safe."

Meanwhile, Integral Ad Science’s EMEA managing director, Nick Morley, told Campaign that brands should follow their existing brand safety and suitabability strategies rather than focus on coronavirus-related content. So-called "cognitive semantic solutions" are available, which can help a brand more accurately identify what content it advertises against or avoids, for example.

Morley said: "This means a brand would not appear near unsuitable ‘coronavirus death’ articles, but may appear near 'quarantine tips' or other articles with a neutral or positive sentiment. A broad application of keyword blocking, such as adding the term ‘coronavirus’ to keyword blocklists, could lead to a reduction in the scale of campaigns."

Other tools, such as augmented URL classification systems and page classification engines, also enable marketers to see ad inventory at the page level.

However, as the pandemic continues to take effect across the globe, media content will also include positive stories related to the coronavirus, such as parenting, cooking and working from home. Contextual data company Peer39’s managing director international, Andrew Morsy, pointed out that marketers are responding to this by shifting their brand messaging to more positive consumer sentiment.

Morsy added: "This trend should mean both publishers and advertisers take a more open-minded approach to contextual suitability. Brands can still keep away from negative coronavirus content, but resorting to one-size-fits-all ad-blocking will mean missed opportunities to advertise alongside suitable and positive content."

Campaign UK

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