But, in recent years the definition of responsibility has expanded to include the environment in which ads are served. A variety of issues are highlighting the vital importance of an ad’s suitability – from brand safety breaches resulting in marketers pulling spend from certain platforms, to overzealous keyword blockers restricting advertising around COVID-19 content. So, what does responsible marketing mean today?          

Responsible marketing in action 

Responsible marketing is about truly understanding the relationship between an ad and the content alongside which it is served. And it goes both ways. Marketers must ensure the environment in which the ad appears is safe and contains suitable content that matches specific brand preferences. But, they also need to make sure the ad itself is appropriate for the content, and more specifically for the audience that will be viewing it.

To illustrate the various forms responsible marketing can take, let’s explore the examples mentioned earlier in more detail. 

The last few years have seen a number of high-profile brand safety breaches, where ads have inadvertently appeared alongside questionable content, such as hate speech or racist views. These situations are not only incredibly damaging to the brand’s reputation, they also mean the budget spent on those ads is directly funding production of such content. With responsible marketing, advertisers can ensure ads only appear with safe and suitable content that is fully aligned with brand values. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is having many unexpected repercussions, including a focus on how to use brand safety tools in a responsible manner. At the start of the pandemic, antiquated keyword blocking tools prevented ads from appearing around content that contained words such as ‘virus’ or ‘coronavirus’. The result was an immediate loss of revenue for the media companies that were playing a vital role in delivering news and information. With responsible marketing, advertisers can take a more nuanced approach to brand safety and ensure their budgets are spent with quality content providers.

To execute responsible marketing, advertisers and agencies need full transparency into where budgets are spent and what environments ads are served in, and this requires robust industry standards.  

Introducing industry standards  

Until recently, defining brand-suitable content was haphazard at best. Diverging opinions around what constitutes appropriate content for marketing created a great deal of confusion and often resulted in over-the-top blocking tactics. These negatively impacted both advertisers and publishers through false positives and negatives, where valuable ad placements were incorrectly identified as inappropriate and rejected.

Now the industry finally has an objective framework that can be activated and measured against, in the form of the Global Alliance of Responsible Media (GARM) standards. GARM is an advertiser-centric community of brands, agencies, media owners, platforms and industry bodies that has created common protocols for responsible marketing. Its standards improve transparency in the availability, monetisation and inclusion of content within advertising campaigns in three key ways. 

First, it outlines common definitions, in consistent and understandable language, to ensure content is categorised in the same way across the industry. Second, it establishes a brand safety floor and suitability framework, or common understanding of where ads should not appear. And third, it delineates different risk profiles for sensitive content, delivering more transparency, better accuracy and reducing waste inventory.  

So, the pieces are already in place to support responsible marketing, but action is needed by agencies and platforms to add momentum to this approach. To ensure budgets are being spent responsibly, in a way that protects brands, users and publishers, they must demand content-level transparency from their tech partners and encourage them to activate against brand suitability standards such as GARM. With a concerted and collaborative effort, the industry can bring clarity to brand suitability, and push forward into an age of responsible marketing.