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Ethical whitelisting: how brands can support positive change with their ad dollars

The notion of ‘brand safety’ has become a key c-suite discussion due to a range of high profile incidents.

In July, more than 1,100 advertisers boycotted Facebook in protest over its hate speech and misinformation policies. Global brands such as Starbucks, Diageo, Verizon, The North Face and Ben & Jerry’s pulled their marketing dollars in order to put pressure on the social network to tackle hate speech, damaging content and misinformation.

This is part of the ongoing drive to improve brand safety online where brands enforce ethical whitelisting to ensure brand safety and pick the right partner or platform with their marketing investment.

Rohan Lightfoot, chief growth officer for Asia Pacific at Mindshare believes ethical whitelisting can be used to help brands support platforms that have more progressive employment practices and sustainability practices. This approach would allow brands to support positive change with all of their advertising dollars, not just individual campaigns.

“Obviously, it is important for brands to appear in brand-safe environments, but an ethical whitelist can add another dimension to the choices that a brand makes,” he explains to The Drum.

“By employing an ethical whitelist, a brand could choose to direct advertising dollars towards or away from platforms based on their stance on things like equality, diversity and sustainability, even things like unionisation or freedom of expression.”

Jerry Daykin, the senior media director at GSK, is adamant that the industry should not use the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ list, especially not in an ethical context, but acknowledges that an ethical exclusion list is a key consideration for brands.

He notes that while the notion of ‘brand safety’ has become a key c-suite discussion due to a range of high profile incidents like the Facebook boycott, many of the reactions to the situation have created new challenges.

“Without proper settings in place brands will unknowingly be funding hate speech, misinformation and generally appearing alongside contexts which undermine their brand positioning. It isn’t necessarily about having a big purpose or ethical CSR approach, it’s about doing the basic due diligence that all marketers should do, and not allowing our budgets to fund the worst parts of the Internet,” explains Daykin, who is also the capabilities director at the Conscious Advertising Network.

One issue that arises is brands can become too narrow in their settings, which defunds news media, which could be dangerous to the diversity of voices and content on the internet.

“At the same time, issues can be caused when brands apply too stringent a site list and you need to make sure you are not defunding mainstream news or diverse voices by applying more nuance to your approaches. A full inclusion list approach can greatly limit your reach and data opportunities and may come with higher costs, but in the vast majority of cases this pays back in effectiveness, regardless many brands will want to apply an exclusion list approach as their main focus and this can still be effective.”

He adds: “The Conscious Advertising Network team was asked to present in front of the UN Forum on Human Rights which is how serious this issue is. The UN is genuinely concerned that advertiser behaviour is funding hate speech and misinformation which is leading to human rights abuses and wider hate attacks. Advertisers spend billions of dollars globally and it’s essential we cut off the funding some of these bad actors are receiving.”

While having an ethical whitelist is good, it may throw up some issues. Walter Cuje, associate media director at Vayner Media APAC, expresses his concerns that smaller platforms may have a harder time working within an ethical whitelist framework due to technical implementation costs.

“While they should do what they can to serve ads more ethically, brands also have a responsibility to verify ethical whitelists' validity, and not use them as an excuse to over-centralise their media investments,” he explains.

In the US, Lightfoot says Mindshare has used this approach to address algorithmic biases as traditional brand safety practices can sometimes penalise more marginal publishers.

He explains Mindshare has worked with LGBTQ publishers in the US to create a PMP that allows more progressive brands to advertise with those publishers in the knowledge that their platforms and experiences are brand safe.

“The ethical whitelisting approach should not penalise smaller platforms, in fact, it could benefit them in situations where they may operate more ethically that some larger players,” he adds.

That said, ethical behaviour is relative and imposing standards would be complex. Daykin says industry ethics need to catch up with modern ad tech.

He explains that there is a spectrum of ethical activity and consideration in this space, from brands wanting to do the bare minimum to avoid the worse parts of the Internet to those looking to have deliberate strategies for funding quality content and diversity.

“Having a more conscious approach is a continual journey of improvement across a range of areas (the Conscious Advertising Network explores six specific themes or ‘manifestos’) and you may never be perfect but are constantly looking to improve,” he adds.

“The exact definition of ethical behaviour will fall on your brand, but I think we can all agree we don’t want to be funding terrorists, hate speech or active misinformation.”

As the current decision making on the deployment of advertising dollars is rightly driven by meeting client business KPIs, the idea of an ethical whitelist would allow for a second layer of decision making for agency planners and brand managers looking to invest their media budget more ethically on a daily basis.

Lightfoot says business ought to be able to spend money in a way that helps to make the world a better place, at the same time as achieving their business goals, because people make these types of choices in our daily lives.

“We might choose to avoid a bar that uses plastic straws or shop in a supermarket that uses paper bags, or book a hotel where the staff seem friendlier. Brands can make the same choices and achieve more than just their business goals,” he explains.

Ultimately, Daykin cautions that the decision making will be challenging because there are always new bad actors emerging, and considerations that the industry was not aware of before.

However, he points out agency groups increasingly have central teams which can drive this best practice easily and without causing huge work for individual teams.

“I think it helps to think about things from a positive marketing perspective as well – the opportunity is not just in avoiding bad things but in finding high quality and effective placements which will work harder for your business, that is everyone who works in media’s job,” he explains.

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