September 21, 2023

Brand Safety Isn't Censorship. It's Capitalism.

Imagine visiting a stall at a farmer’s market and buying a big, beautiful bag of vegetables. Now imagine that the farmer behind the next stall – one you bypassed, say, because they were selling inferior produce – starts condemning you for choosing the other seller’s product. They accuse you of being biased against their produce and harangue you for denying them their right to your money. Absurd, right? The crux of capitalism is consumer choice. No business is automatically entitled to a customer’s money; each must compete to sell its products in a free market.

In today's digital advertising market, content producers create content and advertisers bid to purchase ad space alongside it. Content producers compete for those ad dollars the same way that farmers compete for customers at our hypothetical farmers' market. However, there is one big difference between our farmers’ market and the digital advertising market: at the former, you can see what you’re paying for - but at the latter, you’re often completely in the dark about what you’re buying. For too long, advertisers have had limited visibility into where they’re placing their ads. In fact, digital suppliers have long been able to mask or simply not declare the sites on which they place a brand’s ads.  It’s as if our two competing farmers were allowed to cover up their vegetables and make you guess which table you’re buying from. Hardly free-market capitalism, is it?

The brand safety industry seeks to balance those scales. By building risk ratings for a wide variety of content, brand safety companies inform ad buyers of the kinds of content on which they’re bidding to advertise. These companies provide tools to allow advertisers to assess content across numerous categories, from pornography to pirated content to disinformation.

Disinformation is among the most pernicious content threatening brands’ reputations. A brand that is perceived as attached to or cosigning disinformation can suffer reputational damage, resulting in lost sales and revenue. One study found that 73% of consumers feel unfavorably towards brands associated with false information. Furthermore, 65% of consumers state that they would be unlikely to buy a product or service from a brand that advertises near misinformation.

Imagine how brand managers felt when their ads were found to be supporting sanctioned Russian state propaganda, or when brand ads for a health organization inadvertently funded COVID-19 disinformation? These are scenarios in which brands have been duped into funding content that violated their values and harmed their reputations – all because they lacked the data required to make informed choices.

Many brands have long avoided advertising in places featuring blatantly misleading or highly controversial content. But sites that promote disinformation can be trickier to spot. This is where the brand safety industry steps in - helping advertisers navigate the ever-evolving digital landscape by providing data on the content of potential ad spaces. This work is crucial not just to the health of brands everywhere but also to the integrity of the free market economy. 

As the brand safety industry grows, like any industry, it will be politicized by some. There are already people criticizing advertisers for declining to advertise on specific websites, accusing them of bias or playing politics. At the most extreme end of the spectrum are those who believe equipping brands with the tools to spot disinformation is akin to censorship. This attack is not only illogical, it goes against the spirit of capitalism. In a free market, advertisers must retain the right to choose what type of content they want their ads to appear alongside.

Fully informed transactions between buyers and sellers are a key tenet of a free market. The brand safety industry brings transparency to these transactions between advertisers and content producers in the same way Moody’s, Fitch or S&P inform buyers of the riskiness of financial instruments. The industry identifies content that presents risk. Advertising buyers then make decisions based on the data the industry provides, taking into account their brand’s goals and audience. 

In the same free market spirit, content producers do not have an inalienable right to ad revenue. Freedom of speech does not entitle the speaker to profit from that speech. While a publisher might have the right to say something, no one has the obligation to listen to, amplify, or pay to display ads alongside it. Just as the sellers at our imaginary market are not entitled to customers buying their produce, publishers are not entitled to ad revenue for what they publish. Any claims to the contrary are directly against the principles of a free market.