Sadly, the crisis around brand safety continues to dominate the trade headlines. Most recently, Diageo pulled its YouTube ads in protest after they appeared next to sexualised videos of children. Situations like this suggest something is seriously amiss.

Brands are fed up of running the risk of appearing in unsavoury environments. And the world’s favourite video platform is far from the only social media site to be implicated in the brand safety scandal.

Damaging more than just brands

The issue of misleading or harmful content online is so pressing that it transcends concerns around brand safety: it is one of the most urgent concerns of our era. The damaging effects of questionable online content can incite racial hatred and cause political upheaval. That’s why France is trying to pass a law which hopes to eradicate racist comments on social networks.

Moves to establish better ‘digital safety’ by a global alliance of advertisers, media agencies, media companies and industry associations brands may also help the wider issue. The Global Alliance for Responsible Media counts amongst its numbers 17 of the world’s leading advertisers. Unilever and Adidas, as well as companies like Facebook, Google/YouTube, GroupM, and the IAB, are all throwing their weight behind it. Spearheaded by the WFA (World Federation of Advertisers), its plans are to develop ideas and protocols around brand safety.

The many definitions of brand-safe

But one problem with setting up universal protocols for brand safety is that the term should mean different things for different brands. The IAB defines it as not allowing ads to end up next to inappropriate or illegal content. But it is much more complex than that. If your brand makes children’s toys, you will have very different brand safety needs compared to a lingerie brand.

The IAB’s definition does not take relevancy into account either. Imagine seeing a beef jerky brand advertising on a vegan blog. Ads that appear in a totally non-contextual environment will fail to interest the end-user, thus making the media spend totally pointless.

Brands can be further harmed by ‘malgorithms’: the unfortunate juxtaposition of ads next to legitimate but extremely negative news articles. If your ad is placed next to a feature about terrorists or abusers, it will detract all the value away from that placement and could even harm your reputation. Equally, your ad might be placed in what seems like a safe environment but which is only visited by bot traffic. Or it could end up helping an extremist site to fund its malicious content.

Finding a new way forward for video

With YouTube as one of the main offenders in the brand safety crisis, it is time to look at how the industry can protect and promote reliable, reputable video campaigns. If there is anything to learn from the on-going issues around brand safety, it is that marketers need to define what brand-safe means for their own brands, taking into account their specific goals on a campaign by campaign basis.

This goes back to the urgent need for marketers to define what ‘brand-safe’ means for them. One step everyone should take is to ensure they are only using reliable and certified agencies or programmatic platforms. Brand safety problems are much less likely to crop up when you are buying inventory through trusted sales channels. Transparency is key, so demand to be shown exactly where your ads are ending up.

For some marketers, their definition of brand safety may be deciding their ads will only appear on premium inventory, which may be more expensive but is ultimately far more trustworthy than blind bidding. That’s why Unilever has set its own advertising standards that publishers must meet to be whitelisted by the brand – in doing so, defining their own vision of brand safety.

Time to go back to basics?

For Andrew Meaden, Head of Global Partnerships at Group M, brand safety is front of mind for many of his clients and was widely discussed at Cannes this year. ‘There are lots of very effective software services that can help reduce the risk of appearing in unsafe content,’ he says, ‘But the safest way by far is to advertise with professionally produced, human checked programming.’

Ultimately, brand safety may mean temporarily moving away from the risky worlds of display and mobile in favour of more reliable, scalable and tailorable channels such as TV, including BVOD. This is particularly true given the strict human vetting by Clearcast that all UK broadcast ads go through, which would be near impossible to replicate online – even though social media giants do claim to perform checks.

The nature of the internet has changed in recent years, with a shift away from professionally-created content to more and more user-generated content. Unfortunately, the extremist, harmful and misleading material that inevitably comes with this is slipping through the lax ‘curation’ of social networks. Until the ecosystem changes in favour of brands and not in purveyors of bot traffic and illegal or harmful content, it is undeniable that premium TV advertising in a connected television landscape offers the peace of mind which online campaigns can’t