Brand Safety Officer in Residence Mailbag: Political Advertising

Posted by Christine Desrosiers • Sep 16, 2020 12:11:28 PM

With the 2020 election rapidly approaching, the volume of political advertising in digital will increase exponentially in the coming weeks. As the political discourse becomes more divisive by the day, these ads are coming under increasing scrutiny by consumers and publishers alike. Publishers have complicated decisions to make about if, and under what circumstances, they feel that political ads are appropriate for their brands.

In programmatic, publishers put their ad acceptance policies into action through a combination of settings in their SSPs: category blocks -- which are powered by categorization tags applied by the advertiser or DSP earlier in the transaction chain -- advertiser blocks, and sometimes blocks on individual creatives when nothing else is working to prevent an undesired ad from displaying on their site. It can be a complex and time consuming process to maintain.

Making these decisions more complex is the fact that many publishers are coming out of a challenging Q2, where revenue fell as marketers pulled or paused ad spend due to the coronavirus crisis. Political ad spend this year is projected to be record-setting. For some publishers, accepting political ads -- and all the revenue that category represents -- is an easy yes. For others, leaving that money on the table can be a difficult decision.

Catherine Beattie, Director of Digital Ad Operations at Encyclopaedia Britannica and Merriam-Webster, joins BSI to discuss their brand and their policy to not accept political ads.

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Christine Desrosiers: Who is your audience?

Catherine Beattie: Our demographic is really all ages. We have a lot of students and college-aged users, along with professional copy editors, but really our audience is everybody, looking up all kinds of things, so our ad acceptance policies are geared toward keeping the sites family-friendly.

CD: What’s your stance on political ads?

CB: Political ads have been a “no” for us. Our executive team has always felt that no matter what ad it is, we risk insulting or offending half of our users. For 2020, we reviewed this policy because with all the money pouring into this election cycle, there is a large potential pool of revenue for publishers to tap into. Even with the challenges during the first half of the year, with marketers pausing, reducing, and moving spend, we decided it was still a hard no for us. Users want to feel the dictionary is unbiased and not emotional -- our users trust us, and this is an important part of our brand.

CD: Publishers have settings in many SSPs to help them prevent ads in certain categories, such as political advertising, from reaching their sites. Are those category settings enough to help you protect your brand?

CB: No, unfortunately. Sometimes a political advertiser, such as a PAC or other interest group not directly affiliated with an official campaign, will miscategorize their ad -- either accidentally or intentionally. When that ad hits the sites, users complain. When we follow up on the complaints, the ads can be very difficult to track down and block individually because of the way the text is embedded in the images, the use of symbols, etc. 

If political advertisers held themselves to some kind of standard, maybe this would be a different conversation, but the content and imagery can be very over the top, especially from some of the PACs. I can’t imagine some of these ads to be brand safe for any premium publisher. There’s no way to police the suitability of the content within the broad category of “political ads” -- it’s truly not worth it for us to accept.

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What should BSOs do?

At marketers, agencies:

Whatever your product or service, make sure you understand how your DSP’s categorization features work. Misclassified ads that are flagged as problems can be automatically turned off in some systems, wasting time while you wait for them to be reviewed by platform teams.

If your ad is in the political category, don’t rely exclusively on the open auction to reach your target audiences -- use traditional buying techniques, such as Comscore or Nielsen research, to find publishers who meet your audience goals and approach them directly about a campaign. This avoids your campaign getting blocked by a blanket category exclusion on a desirable site, and gives you an opportunity to access premium products that drive higher consumer engagement than standard display.

In ad tech:

Make sure your buyers understand how to classify their ad campaigns properly. Make sure your sellers understand how to accept or block categories in the platform.

Review your ad quality practices with an eye toward the fact that classification and ad content suitability can be tricky in this category, across the industry. Look for areas of opportunity for your business: education for internal teams to drive better results, education for clients to reduce friction and run more effective campaigns, and for areas where you can offer a technical solution that doesn’t yet exist to protect publishers who don’t accept political ads.

At publishers:

Work with your editorial and leadership teams to understand their priorities and concerns about the impact on your user experience of accepting political ads versus the impact on your bottom line of not accepting them. Document your policy and share it throughout the company to align everyone’s expectations. Share it with your SSP partners so that they can drive better results for your business.

If you decide to block political ads, be vocal with your SSPs about whether the level of control you have in their platforms is sufficient, and let them know when a miscategorized ad slips through. Ask what steps their ad quality and engineering teams are taking to improve filtering features. And make sure you have an escalation protocol in place to find and remove unwanted political ads quickly, to minimize impact on your user experience.

Topics: Publishers, Brand Safety Officer in Residence, SSP, Mailbag, Political Ads, Marketers, Ad Tech