Brand Safety is the New Fad Diet

In Earned Media & PR by Chris Shaffer

In the last 8 months, we’ve seen ad faux pas ranging from Nivea seemingly promoting white supremacy to Kendall Jenner solving the political unrest of our time with a Pepsi.

Even outside of the content of these ads, advertisers have been shocked to see WHERE their ads have been showing up, causing an exodus of 5% of Youtube’s top ad clients after an algorithm automatically showed their spots alongside racist and extremist content.

So what’s a brand to do to ensure their safety when things get dicey? In the cases above, the choice is obvious. Pulling ads to disassociate yourself from content that goes against your values is a no-brainer, but at what point does brand safety become a reactive maneuver in the wake of other advertisers’ actions, versus a proactive decision to better adhere to the values of your brand?

The New Gluten Free

There are plenty of ways to maintain a healthy diet, and it’s easy to sympathize with the ethical reasons why one might choose to make such a choice. What you put in your body is entirely up to you, and as long as your dietary needs are being met and your ethics are suited, nobody has any right to raise a stink about it.

We’ve all seen friends fall victim to the fad diet trends. They, like the militant blogs and news spots they’ve been exposed to, preach the virtues of their new diet, and the next week you see them in the drive-through with a quarter-pounder already halfway down their throat.

There’s nothing wrong with backing out of a sponsorship if you truly believe it’s the right decision. But before you do, ask yourself the following questions:

Are you doing this just to avoid momentary outcry? Will you be wanting to reverse your decision in two weeks? Two months?
Which placements truly adhere to your values?
Does the impact to the brand outweigh the financial impact?

The publicity that comes with negative press certainly has an impact on brand value. If it can be compared to the value of the placement in dollars, that can take some of the knee-jerks out of decision making.

In Publicity, “Bad” is Subjective

Here are two true publicity stories:

Story #1

In 2017, the New York Public Theater performed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
The titular character, cast to resemble President Trump, was assassinated.
At the time of the production, Delta Air Lines was a sponsor of the theater.

Here’s a relevant tweet from the run of the production.

Delta withdrew its funding for the theater, stating that the play’s “graphic staging… does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values.”

Story #2

In 2012, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre performed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
The titular character, cast to resemble then-President Obama, was assassinated.
At the time of the production, Delta Air Lines was a sponsor of the theater.

Here’s a relevant tweet from the run of the production.

Delta is currently still contributing between $100- and $249-thousand each year to Guthrie Theatre as of the writing of this blog.

So what gives? Well, for one, this is probably your first time hearing about the Guthrie Theatre’s production of the play. Despite both featuring the same objectionable content in different trappings, the outcry on social media from 2017’s production spun the story into the limelight. It appeared on virtually every news channel at prime time, and Delta wasn’t the only brand to pull sponsorship.

We all know that the old “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” line is an excuse used by milquetoast advertisers to justify negativity toward their brand, but it’s hard not to look for a silver lining when you get dragged into a storm of social media outrage. Users will go to great lengths to dig through your history and expose perceived hypocrisy (hey, we just did!), which can easily start trending against your favor.

What you choose to do in that moment is your decision alone, but there’s a better way to move forward.


Your business was founded on a set of values that you hold dear. Your business was also founded on the principle of being a business.

Advertising means money in the bank, and if you pull ads at the drop of a hat that can be a very tumultuous experience. Platforms like Snapchat are partnering with ad science companies to prevent ads from appearing alongside “user-generated content that is determined to be inappropriate or objectionable,” but you can take matters into your own hands for better peace of mind.

The only way to prevent brand safety crises from constantly putting you in the hot seat is by being smarter about how you spend your advertising dollars. A report from Business Insider revealed that the cost of advertising is directly proportional to the amount of brand safety you can expect. Selling directly is the safest option while utilizing automated ad systems puts you at the highest risk of appearing alongside objectionable content.

So, if your ads are appearing where you don’t want them to, you might be partially to blame!

Start putting time and effort into carefully selecting your advertising outlets, then your brand safety can truly be in your own hands. If a recent scandal from one of your carefully selected partners truly doesn’t bother you, stick to your guns. Elizabeth Paul, head of strategy at MullenLowe, offers a positive spin: “Unobjectionable is invisible, and when brands are fighting for attention, safe is risky.” Likewise, if you’re actually appalled by a piece of content or an ad partner, pull that sucker!

Target your most likely consumers, and place your ads where they live. Leaving things to chance can be a huge waste of time and money at best, and a PR disaster at worst. Taking control of your ads is the first step toward true safety for your brand, and no fad can shake that.