Should brands be pulling digital ad spend over ‘funding terror’ claims?

Brands such as Sandals, Jaguar Land Rover and Marie Curie are reviewing their digital ad spend in light of the investigation by The Times that claimed they were “funding extremists”.


Brands including Jaguar Land Rover, Sandals and Marie Curie have pulled back on some digital ad spend in the wake of an investigation by The Times that claimed their ads were appearing next to content by extremists, pornographers and white supremacists.

According to The Times, Jaguar Land Rover “stopped all UK digital advertising activity” on Friday (10 February), although this has now resumed after “new safeguards” were put in place. Sandals also instigated a ban that “remains in place while all possible measures to avoid any recurrence” are explored.

And Marie Curie tells Marketing Week: “We are grateful to the Times for bringing this to our attention. Immediate action was taken to remove our ad from the offending sites. We are extremely concerned that our advertising has appeared in this way. We are taking steps necessary to ensure this does not happen again.”

The fact brands are concerned should not be surprising. The Times investigation has brought the issue of brand safety to the fore and advertisers are keen to show they are doing something to address the issues. Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at ISBA, says: “Pulling ads in the face of the press reports is a perfectly logical thing for a brand to do. Most brands will still want to use digital media, so it is a question of ensuring that the media used has protections in place.”

READ MORE: Brand safety online – Can it ever be guaranteed?

Yet industry sources speaking to Marketing Week have raised concerns that many brands seem unclear how about this happened and believe it can be stopped. The big issue the investigation has exposed seems to be how little so many major brands understand programmatic buying, with it requiring a major newspaper investigation for them to start asking questions.

Plus, while “talking to their agencies” is a perfectly valid response, as can be seen from the Marie Curie statement many brands also want to “stop it from happening again”. This may not be possible.

Richard Foan, chairman of industry body JICWEBS, which looks to create anti-ad fraud standards, says it is “one heck of a challenge” to track ads in real time in a contextual way even with the vast resources of companies such as Facebook and Google to help.

We recommend brands have brand safety as one of their top considerations when buying digital and traditional media.

Ian Twinn, ISBA

He, unfortunately, thinks it will never be possible to stop misplacement but that brands much work to reduce their risk by having “as many gatekeepers as possible”.

Twinn agrees: “There are a number of tools to use, including the ISBA contract, the JICWEBS Brand Safety Seal, the PIPCU black list of infringing websites. But there can be no guarantees of 100% protection, other than not advertising.

“No brand is the same in the audience it seeks and brand values it enshrines. We recommend brands have brand safety as one of their top considerations when buying digital and traditional media.”

Foan says the industry also has a “collective responsibility” to help reduce the risk. And JICWEBS tries to bring together brands, agencies and ad tech to help improve transparency and trust.

He explains: “Brands want to feel their investment in digital ad spend is protected but at the moment some may question who to trust. Trust is often based on transparency and without this some may also consider pulling spend.”

Brands also need to stop focusing on programmatic as a means to cut costs and instead focus on using verified agencies and ad tech providers to buy premium inventory if they want to limit the risks still further.

“Would you buy a car without an MOT? No. The same applies for who you buy your digital ads through, so the JICWEBS Board advise advertisers to check whether potential ad trading partners have achieved this certification,” adds Foan.

The IAB UK suggests brands start treading media placement in the same way they would any other part of the advertising process.

Steve Chester, the IAB’s director of data and industry programmes, concludes: “In any medium, brands must select media placement just as carefully as they craft their advertisements. Digital offers brands a unique toolbox with almost unlimited choice about how and where to buy advertising.  With so many options must come caution, and we encourage brands to ask the right questions and get the right information to help make the best decisions.

“We at the IAB want brands to be confident about their media buy up front, and are working with the industry to continue progress in this area to create the right environment for digital advertising to thrive.”