Trust is a major concern across the advertising industry.

Well-publicised brand safety breaches have reduced confidence in digital, with 70% of global brands reporting brand safety has escalated as an issue over the past year. Many feel the time has come to take action, with Unilever threatening to withdraw ad spend from platforms due to their inability to deal with offensive content, and the Bank of America hiring a dedicated brand safety officer to prevent questionable placements.

One method increasingly used by brands such as P&G to keep their ads away from dubious content is whitelisting – the practice of only allowing ads to run on a pre-approved list of websites. In the last 12 months, almost half of global brands have adopted whitelists or blacklists and a further 6% have plans to do so, while JP Morgan Chase cut down the number of websites it advertises on from 400,000 to just 10,000.

Whitelists are intended to provide advertisers with a bulletproof solution to brand safety issues but in practice, this is far from the case. This hard-line and somewhat outdated tactic not only has a negative impact on the revenues of publishers who don’t make the cut, it can also be detrimental to the brand itself, limiting the reach and effectiveness of their campaigns. So, how are media buyers shooting themselves in the foot by using whitelists to limit the sites their ads appear on, and what steps can they take instead to safeguard brand reputation?

Seeing the bigger picture

By only allowing their ads to appear on pre-approved websites, brands are restricting the reach of their campaigns and missing out on incredibly valuable audiences. Smaller niche publishers are often omitted from whitelists not because their content is unsafe but because buyers are simply unaware they exist, or because their audiences are considered too small to be of interest. Brands need to keep their whitelists manageable after all. But it is often these smaller niche publishers that provide the highly relevant, premium quality, brand-safe content and actively engaged audiences that are like gold dust to advertisers.

Contextual relevance is crucial in brand campaigns, so advertising on smaller websites that contain quality, brand-relevant content can significantly boost performance. A Nielsen study revealed placing an automotive brand ad on a car-related website positively impacted brand metrics and increased active recommendations by 50% when compared to placing the same ad in a non-contextually relevant environment such as a news website. Therefore, by excluding this type of smaller publisher through whitelisting, advertisers could be missing out on entire audience segments. 

Imagine, for instance, a vegan clothing brand looking to promote its new product range. Ads placed on a specialist website dedicated to sustainable living and the vegan lifestyle might reach a smaller audience than those placed on the website of a national newspaper, but visitors viewing the ads would be far more receptive to the brand and more likely to convert. By nature, the content would be relevant and brand safe, and there would be far less risk of the ads ending up alongside controversial or objectionable material than with a more general news publication.

What’s more, whitelisting isn’t a fool-proof way to guarantee brand safety, and advertisers who rely on this tactic alone may still suffer damaging ad misplacements. A pre-approved website may not contain obviously harmful material such as hate speech, but it could still contain apparently safe content that is inappropriate or damaging to a specific brand. For instance, a motorsport brand wouldn’t want its ads to appear next to a news report about a motorway pile-up, and a premium whiskey brand wouldn’t want to advertise alongside an article on rising alcoholism.

Beyond the whitelist

While advertisers’ reliance on the whitelist is understandable, there are other measures they could take to ensure brand safety without restricting audience reach. The first step is to only buy inventory where an ads.txt file is in place. Ads.txt is an initiative introduced by the Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab to help combat inventory arbitrage and spoof domains, and by only buying where an ads.txt file exists advertisers can be sure the publisher is taking brand safety seriously, the inventory is genuine, and the seller is authorised to trade it.

Step two is to combine human input with automation to maintain the best of both worlds. Programmatic has brought enormous benefits to digital advertising, but the human touch is still essential in overseeing and fine-tuning any ad campaign and is particularly crucial in meeting each advertisers’ specific definition of brand safety. Finally, brands can use the latest AI-based brand safety tools to assess the true meaning of on-page content to ensure ad placements do not pose a risk to their brand.

While the intentions behind whitelisting are honourable, it is having a detrimental impact on smaller publishers omitted from lists and is doing more harm than good to the effectiveness of brand campaigns. By only buying inventory where there is an ads.txt file in place, combining human input with automation, and embracing the latest brand safety tools, brands can ensure safe and effective ad placements on quality websites without resorting to a restrictive whitelist.