The Complete Guide to Brand Safety

Why Brand Safety is Crucial for the Future of Digital Advertising and the Best Ways to Protect Your Ads Online


As advertisers, one rule is sacred: we must protect the brand. But with the rise of programmatic advertising and a complete reliance on behavioral targeting, marketers have lost the power to know exactly where their ads will appear online. This has left brands under threat: Ad messaging is now vulnerable to appear next to harmful content online, causing brands to lose both credibility and customers. How can we ensure that our brand messaging is safe? And why is brand safety crucial for the future of our industry?

In this blog post, we will break down brand safety, outline protection measures and explain why safety is integral for the success of our brands in the fast approaching cookie-less world.

What is Brand Safety?

Before we begin, let's define what we mean by "brand safety." The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines "brand safety" as "keeping a brand's reputation safe when they advertise online." In the simplest terms, "brand safety" is just taking measures to ensure that your brand messaging appears against content that is not harmful in any way.

For example, a new airline will avoid content about a plane crash, a dessert company ad will not want to appear next to an article about diabetes and more generally, all brands will wish to keep their messaging away from hate speech and explicit content online.

The IAB has standardized how the digital advertising industry defines "harmful content" - putting benchmarks in place to help marketers avoid unsafe content and execute brand safety measures. While the list is ever-involving, harmful content is placed in these widely accepted categories: Military conflict, obscenity, drugs, tobacco, adult, arms, crime, death/injury, online piracy, hate speech, terrorism, harmful sites and fake news.

Brand Safety Versus Brand Suitability

But, while these categories help brands typically avoid inappropriate content, these handful of industry standards can sometimes appear too blunt. It is much more complex than just a matter of harmful words or keyword block lists. That's where brand suitability comes in.

Brand Suitability

Brand suitability takes brand safety to the next level. It is more than ensuring that the brand’s reputation isn’t disrupted by the content around it. More importantly, brand suitability is based on understanding the full context of a page to make sure it is suitable and aligns with a brand's message.

Illustration of the Difference Between Brand Safety and Brand Suitability

Why is Brand Safety Important?

Protecting your brand's reputation and image within the industry is integral to garner long-term success. Here's why brand safety is so important:

It Safeguards Your Reputation

It's crucial to ensure that your brand is in good standing with the clients and the industry at large. The type of content within which your brand is displayed will directly relate to how your brand is perceived. For example, if your ad messaging is placed within content describing natural disasters, that may paint your brand in a negative light. Therefore, putting brand safety measures in place will help to safeguard your reputation and build trust with your consumers.

It Helps You Stay Competitive

Gone are the days when brands stayed silent on important issues! By aligning yourself with the social causes you believe in, you will not only promote your brand identity but also stay competitive in a world where consumers want brands they are supporting to have a voice.

It Can Optimize Your Ad Spend

In order to promote brand safety, your ads will most likely appear within premium content where your ad spend is optimized and going toward valuable impressions and engagement. Plus, any threats to your brand safety can cause consumers to lose trust and decrease your revenue.

Best Practices to Ensure Brand Safety

Here are a few of the top tips to keep in mind when developing your brand safety strategy:

1. Define Your Stance on Important Issues

The next era of advertising will require brands to find their voice and stance on polarizing topics rather than backing away from them. Brands can then use this stance to determine what type of content you wish to advertise against.

As the world continues to evolve - fights pandemics, endures wars and stands up against injustices, brands can no longer remain silent. A 2020 survey found that 60% of U.S. consumers wanted brands to take a stance on social issues (Forbes). With this change in consumer sentiment, brands must first take a stand for what they believe in and then determine what they believe is safe and suitable to amplify their ad messaging.

2. Avoid the Curse of the Keywords Block Lists

Many of the generic keywords regularly blocked by advertisers often cut brands off from large amounts of perfectly safe premium content for their digital advertising campaigns. Instead, brand safety should be enhanced by brand suitability - a proactive contextual targeting-based strategy made possible with new technologies that bring a nuanced edge sharp enough to cut through today’s volatile digital landscape.

Advertising Against Covid-19

For example, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, analysis by GumGum's contextual intelligence platform, Verity™, revealed that 67% of pages blocked due to COVID-related keywords actually represented a safe environment for advertising. That’s over four million demonetized pages and a huge audience pool that advertisers actively avoided at a time when audiences were stuck at home fixated on digital content!

Advertising Against Climate Change

In 2021, GumGum Verity released data indicating that a majority of online content containing keywords related to climate change was actually safe for brand advertising. Over a 30-day period, Verity identified almost 1.2 million unique pages containing climate change-related keywords across GumGum’s publisher network. Of those pages, the system’s threat detection models classified 58.5% as "Safe."

Illustration of GumGum's Brand Safety Measures Data for Advertising Online

“Advertisers are right to be concerned about dangerous or controversial content online, but overzealous use of keyword blocklists is the wrong approach. Rather than blocking pages or entire sites based on broad keywords, advertisers need to be using tools which can analyze all of the data within digital environments to properly identify what’s a threat and what isn’t.” - William Merchan, Head of Verity for GumGum

3. Focus on the Context

In order to ensure that your ad message is placed within a suitable environment that aligns with your brand values, you need to focus on the context of each page. Invest in advanced contextual advertising capabilities to ensure that you are gaining a complete understanding of every page to determine the most effective placements for your ads.

in the simplest terms, contextual advertising is advertising on a web page based on the page's content. For example, an ad for Sephora in an article about the best makeup brushes, or an ad for Starbucks next to the best cappuccino recipe. Contextual targeting uses the information already present on the page to match a brand's ad to the content the user is consuming and thus ensures brand safety and suitability.

Illustration of Contextual Advertising for Brand Safety and Brand Suitability

4. Pick the Right Publishers

With programmatic advertising, the relationship between the buy and sell side makes it difficult to know where any ad will end up. That is why transparency is extremely important. Make sure to pick a reliable and trusted publisher partner that provides both access to premium inventory and is compliant with all the industry-set brand safety measures.

5. Leverage the Impact of Human Moderation

To develop a completely foolproof brand safety strategy, combine advanced contextual intelligence with the insight of human moderators. Moderators bring an additional layer of evaluation to help spot the cultural differences, political ideologies and subject matters AI might miss, especially at the local market level.

6. Determine Risk Levels

Although brands often pull their content from pages during times of uncertainty, it is important to set up a long-term approach to the level of risk you are willing to take when placing ads within online content. One long-term strategy to determine the key values, core beliefs and social positions of each client and identify the target audience. This foundation will then help to inform decisions for which content is in line with brand safety standards for each marketing campaign.

Brand Safety and Suitability with GumGum

GumGum Verity's brand safety and suitability solution empowers advertisers to feel confident they’re serving ads in environments that are suitable for their brands. It also enables publishers to unlock and monetize more of their content that is often ignored due to rudimentary blocklists.

Example of how GumGum's Verity ensures brand safety through content level analysis to avoid inappropriate content in online advertising

Verity Works Hard to Guarantee Brands Safety for GumGum Clients:

It Analyzes A Full Suite of Contextual Signals

Verity identifies a full suite of contextual signals, allowing both the buy-side and the sell-side to truly define and implement brand safety and suitability. Verity™ works for Content Categories, Prominent Keywords, Sentiment and Threat Categories and Risks.

Illustration of how Verity executes brand safety to protect a brand's reputation and align with customer interests

It is MRC Accredited

The Media Rating Council (MRC) has granted GumGum's contextual intelligence technology, Verity, content-level accreditation for contextual analysis, brand safety and suitability. This accreditation proves that GumGum's safety standards meet the rigorous standards set by the MRC.

It Aligns with Industry Standards

Verity aligns with both the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) industry standards for content protection and classification taxonomies.

To find out how Verity can protect your brand, click here.


In today's quickly changing world, amidst troves and troves of online content, no brand is one hundred percent safe. It is now more important than ever, to develop strong and comprehensive industry benchmarks, determine your brand's core values and position and work together to deploy and strengthen contextual technologies to help your ads survive in a privacy-forward and cookie-less future.

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