The big brand safety debate – CNN Vs. Advertisers

By Ari Applbaum May 30, 2018

Meredith Artley, CNN Digital’s SVP/editor-in-chief spoke recently about Brand Safety at a conference. She explained that Brand Safety means that brands do “not want to be associated with news that is ‘bad’.”

This definition is quite accurate – advertisers are increasingly concerned about their ads appearing near content that is harmful or inappropriate.

She added that “it’s understandable, in a way. But it’s problematic for CNN – and for many other news organizations.”

Why is Brand Safety problematic?

Because today’s ads run (almost) everywhere. As soon as marketers choose to advertise only against positive content, a huge portion of the content on CNN and other sites, especially news sites, becomes irrelevant and unmonetizable. Consider how much of the news cycle is dominated by politics, accidents, death, disasters, conflict, sex, etc.

She suggested that if advertisers become highly selective, CNN’s inventory will shrink and the content that can’t be monetized will “get put behind a paywall and become less accessible, especially to people who might need it most or might not want to or be willing to pay for it.”

In other words, the new emphasis on Brand Safety will hurt publishers and readers alike.

How does Artley suggest dealing with this problem?

She argues that Brand Safety needs to be redefined. Instead of “marketers not wanting to be next to so-called bad content. It’s about marketers wanting to be inside of the umbrella of a trusted news brand.

In a way, she’s suggesting that if you are a brand, as long as your ads appear on a site that is trusted and reputable, where news is not fake and a certain editorial standard and quality is kept, you should be pleased. The context of each page — as determined by its many text, images, and video components– is irrelevant, as long as the media brand is trustworthy and reputable.

But for advertisers, this would be a step back, not forward.

Before Brand Safety became such a crucial focus, marketers pushed for clean traffic, media quality, user targeting, and viewability. In other words, as long as ads appeared on reputable sites and viewed by real, relevant people, advertisers were content.

And none of this has gone away – they are all prerequisites. But I don’t see how Artley’s definition will convince marketers to go back to that minimum. The fact is that advertisers now demand more; they demand contextual relevance.

Marketers want to know that even within a reputable environment, their brand message and sentiment are not harmed by negative, inappropriate or irrelevant content.

Ideally, they want to target the content that works best for them. Even if the CNN logo is at the top of the page, Toyota, for example, presumably wants to avoid car accident content completely and would prefer to place video ads before Automotive (and perhaps Outdoors, Family, Travel, Sports, etc.) content.

It will be interesting to see if CNN can educate the market and redefine Brand Safety so narrowly. I doubt it will succeed. Like with past initiatives, it’s much more likely that CNN and other leading publishers will need to reinvent themselves to meet the requirements of those who control the purse strings – brands and agencies.