This Article Contains the Word Lesbian; Will Your Brand Safety Vendor Block It?

Brand safety today is a given. Every advertiser expects it and every reputable publisher understands that if they don’t deliver universally acceptable content to readers, they lose their ability to monetize articles. It’s cut and dry. No one wants their brand living next to stories about terrorist activity, murder or adult content.

Brand suitability, a more subjective and often elusive spin-off of brand safety, has now taken center stage. Does an article add or detract from a brand’s value? It’s an intelligent and loaded question with a deafening response—one that highlights implicit bias and an archaic way of thinking, rooted predominantly in extreme risk aversion.

Imagine my surprise as a budding ad operations professional when in the wee hours of the evening I opened a negative keyword list from a prominent advertiser only to be smacked in the face with a familiar word: lesbian. Not lesbian murder or lesbian selling drugs, but simply lesbian.

Our industry is overdue in creating and enforcing standards that discourage bias.

It was the summer of 2015 and premium news publications were awash with headlines announcing a full federal kibosh on state bans against same-sex marriage. I was two years deep into my marriage at this point and felt emotional at having lived through such progress only to be knocked down by mainstream brands who said that they didn’t want to advertise to consumers like my wife and me.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s almost 2020 and this story is old news. But unfortunately, it’s not. I continue to see exhaustive keyword lists that discriminate against race, religion, sexual orientation and more without reservation. Brands alienate groups of consumers from their buying channels not because they are biased but because they lack the courage, understanding and technological resources to break the mold.

This prudence doesn’t just impact traditionally marginalized groups of consumers. It is also a direct and irresponsible attack on our free press. Premium news publications rely on advertising dollars to pay their editorial staffs. By limiting the ability to monetize content that is otherwise brand safe, we are, as an industry, strengthening the foothold of user-generated content and pushing our most reputable news sources towards paywalls.

While third-party verification vendors work to educate and prevent this type of discrimination within their platforms, the reality is that keyword lists are not smart enough to make the differentiations needed to combat the problem. A story about a hijab created by Nike for female runners is flagged because some advertisers fear that the word hijab could be seen as controversial, a myth long dismissed. The list of examples goes on and on, each one more questionable than the last.

Our industry is overdue in creating and enforcing standards that discourage bias, both contextual and otherwise, in advertising. We need to start by:

  • Establishing clear and universally accepted brand safety and suitability guidelines.
  • Providing better education to buyers on the limitations of semantics verification technology and work together to improve these solutions to eliminate bias.
  • Following Vice’s lead, as announced at their 2019 Newfronts, to not accept keyword blacklists from buyers containing descriptors based on ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or disability.

Let’s follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s most iconic brands who are putting diversity at the forefront of their creative by enforcing equality in the distribution of these advertisements. Because guess what—lesbians (and the rest of the LGBTQ+, people of color and all marginalized groups) buy things too.