A long time ago, back around 2009 or so, YouTube personality James Rolfe — better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd — had an ad show up on his website, Cinemassacre.com, for Scientology.
Fans noticed, and among his core audience, Scientology isn't viewed very favorably at all.
He ended up having to explain to people, via public announcement, that he didn't have control over what exact ads showed up on his site.
Just as a controversial ad can look bad for someone's website, the reverse is also true.
If your brand's Facebook ads were to get displayed on a site that's particularly controversial, it can definitely reflect badly on you.
Unfortunately, customers don't usually realize that you're not directly controlling the ad placements. So they get the mistaken impression that your company supports something they don't like.
This is usually more of a concern with display ads, but it's also something that can happen with ads you've created on Facebook.
In addition to placements in newsfeeds and on the right side of the screen, ads can also appear through the Facebook Audience Network, in Facebook's Instant Articles, and even during live video streams.
What this means is that there's a possibility your ad could show up next to controversial content that you don't endorse.
An example would be an advertisement showing up on Breitbart. Regardless of how you feel about their political ideas, the fact is that Breitbart is a lightning rod for controversy.
In a recent article in Marketing Land, the author explains how to protect your brand from the wrong kind of publicity.
What are these risky placements?
In theory, brand safety shouldn’t be as much of a concern when advertising on social as it is on display.
There are millions of different websites on which your display ad could appear, but if you’re advertising on Facebook, your ad would only appear on Facebook, right?
If Facebook relied solely on the newsfeed and right-hand side rail as placements, they would be severely limiting their potential ad revenue and very quickly reach saturation.
So, to solve this, they’ve found other sources of inventory.
- Facebook Audience Network (FAN): Launched in 2014, this is a network of mobile sites and apps which can be selected as a placement at ad set level, allowing your ads to appear outside of the Facebook ecosystem.
- Instant Articles: Instant articles are a mobile web format which allows news articles to load more quickly on Facebook. They were originally criticized for taking valuable ad revenue away from publishers, but Facebook have recently rolled out ad units at the bottom of articles.
- In-Stream Video: This format allows the delivery of 5- to 15-second mid-roll video ads within live and non-live videos.
So far, so good — more placements mean more reach for your ads and more revenue for Facebook. But the issue with these placements is that while you can select whether to use them or not, to some degree that’s as far as your control goes. You can’t select on which videos or instant articles you want your ad to appear.
Why risk it?
The most obvious way to avoid such controversy is to not target these placements. If your ads are just appearing in people’s newsfeeds, then problem solved.
But as well as limiting your reach, you could be missing out on some cost-effective inventory.
How can you protect yourself?
Until last year, Facebook provided nothing in the way of brand protection. FAN was a completely blind network, with no ability to see where you were appearing, target specific placements, or even block unsavory ones.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go down very well with advertisers.
In June, they announced they’ll be gradually rolling out further controls:
- Pre-campaign transparency: “We can finally see where our ads are appearing!” I hear you cry. Not quite — but you can see a list of where your ads could potentially appear across FAN, Instant Articles and in-stream ads. This is currently only available to a select group of advertisers using a video views objective.
- Blocking at account level: Previously, you’ve had to apply your placement block list to each individual ad set. This process will now be significantly simpler thanks to account-level blocking.
With these new controls in mind, at Merkle we’ve put together the following tiered Facebook brand safety levels:
I would never recommend using Low; diligence is always necessary to ensure that your ads are appearing against quality inventory. There isn’t a brand out there that can afford to show up against the type of content that has caused the recent controversy.
You can find more advice about managing your brand's reputation over at Marketing Land.