Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Does exclusion really keep children safe online?

By Rob Blake, UK MD, Channel Factory

Recent revelations about industry practices concerning children’s safety online have ignited a fervent discussion within the industry, and a much needed discussion at that. Adalytics, a prominent watchdog in the advertising realm, has raised concerns about the data harvesting practices of ad tech and data brokers. Their report alleges that these entities are collecting data from viewers of “made for kids”  videos who have interacted with ads.

Whilst this ‘scandal’ is significant, is there a bigger issue at hand here? Let us not waste a good crisis by playing the blame game or pointing fingers. Instead let us use this time to re-evaluate and even overhaul common practices within our industry for the betterment of kids safety online, but also for ourselves and clients.

In light of this, we should all feel compelled to explore the multifaceted implications of these findings and ask a much larger question of our industry: is audience-based targeting the true culprit in this complex situation?

Has our industry done enough?

Firstly, let us ask: have all reasonable steps been taken to ensure the safety and privacy of kids?

It would be crass, and incorrect, to suggest that ad tech vendors, data brokers and tech companies have worked maliciously with regards to children’s safety online. Any and all companies involved in ‘scandals’ regarding children’s safety online have been open to evolving their practices, and sought to move the industry forward. The fact there have been multiple issues, from multiple tech companies over the years despite their best efforts, shows that the real problems are industry wide in the brand safety and exclusion practises many companies place their trust in.

One impactful and immediate step the industry can take is a wholesale buy-in to greater transparency measures. When it comes to children’s safety online, all involved in our industry should open themselves up to collaboration, discussion and scrutiny to ensure we can create the most effective but safe tools. It’s essential to underscore that there’s no logical reason to attribute malicious intent without concrete evidence.

Each individual business within our industry has the opportunity to act as a beacon of light by continuing to raise the bar for tech practices in order to keep children safe online. By committing to elevating industry standards regarding transparency and kids safety, not just hitting the bare minimums, our industry can also become an example to others. Not only does this have the very positive and obvious consequences of protecting children, but it will help restore trust in the whole of the advertising industry among brands and consumers across the globe.

The fundamental flaws of exclusion in audience targeting

In an era where people share devices and enjoy media as a collective experience within families and among friends, striving for absolutism in audience targeting is unattainable. It is perhaps wiser to reframe our strategies and prioritise placing adverts based on content targeting and intentionally inclusive inclusion lists.

The Adalytics report offers a critical insight into audience based targeting, which has been a mainstay in the advertising industry for what some would argue is far too long. Media buyers reported that, despite employing several precautions, it remains exceptionally challenging to prevent their ads from being served on children’s channels unless they use an inclusion list. Perhaps the issue lies in the industry’s mental models that prioritise protection through exclusion and the blocking operating methods that constrain our collective ability to address the challenge of children’s advertising and privacy effectively.

Rather than relying on exclusion-based measures to steer clear of kids’ audiences and content, a paradigm shift towards inclusion-based approaches could be the key. To create a clear example that all can visualise, if you try to protect children through exclusion then things will always slip through the cracks. However, when you protect through inclusion, you are handpicking everything you are happy and comfortable with children engaging with, ensuring they are protected online.

Moving forward, advertisers and brands must embrace content based advertising. This allows brands to align with creators and content that line up with each brand’s preferences and key audiences whilst avoiding the unsafe, unsuitable, and untrue, while engaging with the relevant, responsive, and inclusive.

Moreover, content based advertising and inclusion lists allow for a more positive online experience for children. These methods help support diverse creators and does not punish content that focuses on topics such as mental health, sustainability or other important social issues like race or gender. By including these creators and content, children can be exposed to safe content and, if they so wish, they can enjoy positive and informative content around these key issues.

Exclusion and its overarching punitive measures is therefore ineffective, but also harmful to children, whilst content based advertising protects children, promotes diverse audiences and delivers improved results for brands.

Never waste a good crisis

The recent revelations concerning Google’s practices in children’s advertising have triggered a crucial industry-wide conversation. While protecting children’s safety and privacy is paramount, we must also examine the broader implications for audience targeting in digital advertising. Google’s intent remains a subject of debate, but the challenges we face regarding children’s safety as an industry are undeniable

We are advocating for increased transparency, collaboration, and a shift toward inclusion-based strategies to ensure brand suitability and inclusivity while safeguarding children online. The road ahead may be uncertain, but by reframing our approach, we can work collectively to address the complexities of children’s advertising and privacy in the digital age.

As a brand, you have a moral responsibility to ensure that the content children are watching is consistent with the brand values you want to portray as a brand. And you can have more influence on that than you might think. The result: happy parents, children’s self-confidence remains intact, and not entirely unimportant: in no time, brand preference and purchase intent will increase.

Let’s not waste a good crisis, and instead let’s undo the harm of audience based targeting, and instead opt in wholeheartedly for an inclusive, content based approach.