Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How to not become qanon’s favourite juice brand

By Ryan Cochrane, COO, Good-Loop

As you’re browsing around the internet, you find yourself on your trusted news website of choice, and want to know what’s going on about the breaking news of the day.

Sadly, 2021 has carried on much like 2020. It’s not exactly good news is it? Terrorism at the Capitol. Food parcels for a week that Stuart Little would make short work of. Man United top of the league. And of course, the little matter of a global pandemic.

But, it’s undoubtedly interesting. So as a reader, you begin your doom-scroll, and start reading all about it. Along the way, you’ll maybe see some ads. Perhaps in a story about QAnon, you’ll see an ad for Coca-Cola. You glance at it, and carry on your way reading more about the story.

Time goes by, and a few days later, you find yourself filling up your shopping cart. Online, of course. Thirsty, tired out from all that clicking, you open the fridge. Nothing to drink but council juice. Not to worry though, you can still sneak some tasty drinks into your order…

Your chosen supermarket has all the usual suspects to quench your thirst. Including Coca-Cola.

And, after toying with the idea of buying something else, you’ll buy Coca-Cola.

You’ll buy it because Coke tastes great.

You’ll buy it because you’re familiar with it.

You’ll buy it because you trust it.

You’ll buy it because in a world of chaos and uncertainty, that caramel-coloured caffeine in a can still gives you some sense of what normal is.

You might even buy it because you remembered seeing an advert.

But you’ll not avoid buying it because of an advert.

Because even though Coca-Cola appeared next to an article about QAnon (most likely criticising or informing about them), you aren’t a smooth-brained moron. You probably don’t think collapsing democracy due to a baseless conspiracy theory is a good plan. And as such, you probably don’t think that because of that one ad, Coca-Cola is the QAnon soft drink of choice.

That’s because, despite what some in the brand safety world would have you believe, the only people who watch adverts are human beings and bots. And while it might sometimes be hard to tell the difference, human beings have the capacity to think, and be rational.

Hopefully, this seems logical. Yet marketers and brand safety vendors have long held the idea that avoiding content like this is critical to keep your brand ‘safe’. Especially online. In other words, their argument is that if you show a viewer an ad in an article like that, they’ll think your brand supports terrorism, or whatever awful event is unfolding. Leaving aside how insultingly little this means they think of their audience, let’s ride the bus a few stops and see where this worry and fear leads us.

Driven by fear, in comes the category blocks. It looks like a lot of the ‘brand safety flags’ comes on news content, so you take that out. Then, you want to make sure that you’re not near anything contentious or controversial, so you add in some keyword blocks too. You’re pretty happy, you’ve protected your brand. So you set your ads off on their way.

The results are great. Your ‘Brand Safety Score’ has never been higher. Woohoo! Sure, you don’t really know what that really means, but it says 99% and is green on the dashboard, so it must be good. It’s safe! Right?

The Breitbart problem

Wrong. Because while you’ve avoided the keywords, and avoided the categories, maybe you’ve also landed on some nasty publishers. It seems you’ve run a few thousand ads on the Daily Mail. Oh well, no big deal. But what about the 30,000 impressions on Breitbart, a site cited by multiple terrorists in their manifesto? Is that a big deal?

On reflection, you realise it probably is. You want to take this seriously. So you exclude hundreds of sites, dropping your media buy down to just 20-30 websites. That’ll keep you safe, and sure enough, this time it does. But now all the money that funded local news, aspiring publishers, and everything down to recipe sites and the open web is gone – centralised to just a few publishers. A narrow range of voices, reflecting a narrow range of views, into the void. Is that the online world you want to fund?

At this point in the journey, our intrepid marketer probably wishes she’d just put up a bloody billboard. Who can blame her? Except this whole rabbit hole can be avoided through making just a few conscious decisions about their brand, and the publishers they’re willing to support. In the ‘old days’, this is how ad space would be sold. A brand would know the audiences they wanted to reach and the content they wanted to support. They’d call the advertising department of the publication, they’d buy a bunch of adverts, and more often than not editorial would manage the placement to be clear and effective without cluttering the content.

While a total return to those days isn’t desirable for any number of reasons, marketers must get real about the true impact of their digital advertising. In days of old, the slots avoided today – the breaking news, attention grabbing positions, that helped build today’s big brands with all the associated prestige – are the ones our industry now avoid. And the main reason, is fear. How can we restore this sense of editorial ourselves, to know that a bad news story isn’t always bad news for your brand.

A good rule of thumb is to dial back everything a vendor says by half. If it’s sold as dangerous, it’s probably not that bad. If it’s sold as ultra-impactful, it might raise an eyebrow. In an ultra competitive space where viewers see tens of thousands of ads per day and scroll the length of Big Ben in content every day, your ad isn’t going to change someone’s world.

But your investment decisions, and the articles publishers write, will directly affect the world we live in, and as a result the world your brand trades in. The articles written by publishers have seen governments removed and installed, riots, murders, justice, and held the otherwise untouchable to account. Supporting a free press is, arguably, the most powerful thing we can do in the fight against misinformation. Choose the publishers and platforms that do good for the world, or at least do no harm.

Appearing next to an article talking about QAnon is absolutely fine. Appearing next to an article in support of QAnon is entirely different. Brand safety doesn’t need to be complicated, it’s about simple choices. All you have to do is make them. It’s a small price to pay to make sure that when your child asks about the terrible event on the TV, you don’t need to tell them you paid for it.

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