Balancing Act: Context and Sensitive Content


ADOTAS – Context is a crucial factor in ad performance, and blind buying formats such as ad exchanges and real-time bidding now give marketers valuable impressions at a price they can choose. The problem is that these buying strategies also increase the chances of bad page placements that defeat the purpose of the ad. In truth, the issue of brand safety is a crucial and often overlooked factor for using RTB effectively.

When an ad shows up on a page beside inappropriate content, that impression can belie the intended ad message. We see it all the time: fast food ads appearing next to stories about obesity, or lingerie ads next to stories about sexual assault. In both of those cases, it’s easy to see why an ad engine could label the content as appropriate. Obesity articles usually mention food and diet, and lingerie advertisers logically try to target the word “sex,” albeit in much more appropriate environments.

It just goes to show how difficult it is to target around context while maintaining brand safety at all levels. Luckily, protection technology is growing to match the strides the industry has made in targeting and efficiency.

My company, FetchBack, ran into a delicate situation recently that required a great deal of care to ensure that our client’s ads were served in environments that were not only contextually relevant environments, but also avoided potential ad fails. In September, we ran a basic branding and acquisition campaign for a major airline. Of course, this past September also marked the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the airline wanted to avoid having its ads appear next to the sensitive memorial content.

The unfortunate reality is that most 9/11 content would mention the same keywords that normally appeal to an airline advertiser: flights, planes, and the names of competing airlines.

So, as the retargeting partner, we were faced with the challenge of sorting out the inappropriate content at a time when these keywords were used several times a day on top-level sites, including those of newspapers and TV networks. But through our partners at Peer39, a page-level intelligence partner, were able to build a custom RTB filter solution that helped us avoid any potentially harmful ad placements.

By analyzing page level data on a deeper level, we were able to differentiate 9/11 memorial coverage from other content that was contextually relevant to an airline branding campaign. The major airline was able to match messaging with consumers and advertising, yielding better results and avoiding potentially negative messaging.

Granted, this is just one very sensitive campaign, and most online campaigns don’t need to tread such a fine line between ideal placements and potential pitfalls. Still, as targeting technology accelerates and blind-buying formats like RTB grow in popularity, brand marketers need to be aware of the potential issues that can arise. Not every campaign requires special safety filters, but it’s important for every targeting campaign to employ some level of brand safety. Before tackling a targeted or RTB campaign, consider these tips:

  • Think about potential harmful placements, as well as double meanings and misinterpretations, before your campaign starts. The only way we were able to avoid inappropriate 9/11 content was because someone realized the potential negative impact.
  • Consider the goal of the campaign, and then decide the right level of targeting. There’s a lot to choose from, and retargeting, keyword targeting, and semantic targeting all have different levels of safety built in.

Again, targeting in a way that actually benefits the brand advertiser extends far beyond simply pairing consumer and ad. The best targeting firms understand that context is a crucial component in that equation, but leveraging context comes with its own set of challenges.

Ad technology firms often tout the efficiency of automated buying, but how much value is that efficiency bringing if the brand buying the ads is put in a questionable position? When buying inventory in a real-time environment, the best way to avoid negative ad placements is to filter as tightly as possible.


  1. For more than 16 years we have been trying to convince the car companies that The Auto Channel is a great place to deliver their messages to a 100% relevant and welcoming audience…so after all of that time and a million readers a month guess how many direct advertisers we have? If you said one you would be correct…so who is really paying attention to quality instead of quantity…I wish I knew.


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