As technology advances, the advertising world is keeping pace. Companies can now advertise more easily and effectively across the Internet. However, the risks associated with that convenience are becoming more and more apparent.

Many companies employ third-party advertising services that use online consumer data and automated software to place advertisements across millions of websites, thousands of apps, and different user-generated video services. Unfortunately, because of this wide-reaching marketing tool, organizations employing targeted ads risk having their advertisement and brand displayed alongside offensive content. (Some types and uses of targeted ads have even faced legal challenges.)

Targeted ads appearing alongside offensive content presents issues for advertisers, regardless of size or sophistication. Recently, the Wall Street Journal detailed how commercials from some of the world’s largest brands – Coca-Cola, Toyota, Procter & Gamble, Amazon, and Microsoft – played before anti-Semitic and racist YouTube videos. Many advertisers, including Kellogg, U.S. Bank, and Warby Parker removed ads from Breitbart, a conservative news organization, after a flurry of social media users complained that the site published racist, misogynistic, and homophobic content.

While third-party targeted advertising services, like Google’s AdSense or Microsoft’s Bing Advertising, offer the ability to exclude targeted ads from pornographic or gambling sites, it is difficult for a marketer to prevent their ad from appearing on a website that holds values contrary to the marketer. Many times, when an advertising service identifies a user that matches the intended audience of the advertisement, the user will see the advertisement even if they are visiting offensive sites.

Similarly, the proliferation of “fake news” sites, which publish sensationalized and false news, present difficult challenges. Recently, an advertisement for Allstate appeared next to an article denying the occurrence of the Sandy Hook school shooting. The practice of monitoring and blacklisting such sites is daunting because new sites are constantly created in an effort to reap advertising revenue.

Despite these challenges, targeted ads are here to stay. On April 3rd, President Trump approved a bill rolling back proposed restrictions on internet service providers (ISPs) from selling customer data. Many believe this paves the way for ISPs to sell browsing information, increasing the amount of data available for targeted advertisement services. Because targeted ads will only increase in importance and value, advertisers must master utilizing targeted ads without sacrificing a brand’s hard-earned reputation. Fortunately, organizations can take action:

  • Monitor, Monitor, Monitor: Advertisers must dedicate resources and establish procedures for monitoring the reach of targeted ads. By proactively reviewing the advertisement’s analytics, an organization can reduce the risk of their ad from being placed on offensive sites. Additionally, organizations should establish procedures for quickly removing ads and responding to public criticism whenever an ad does appear alongside offensive content.
  • Think in Black and White: Advertisers should consider establishing a blacklist or a whitelist to help prevent their advertisement from appearing on offensive pages. A blacklist contains a list a sites where their advertisement cannot appear. Although a blacklist is a powerful tool, offensive sites materialize constantly, requiring organizations to continuously update their blacklist to guard against misplaced ads. A whitelist, however, is a list of sites specifically approved by the advertiser where their advertisement may appear. Although the use of a whitelist reduces the reach of an advertisement, use of analytics can help create a powerful whitelist that not only reaches a wide audience, but also limits the brand’s exposure to offensive content.
  • Quality over Quantity: Organizations must align marketing goals to de-value the total number of impressions and instead emphasize other measures of quality, including view-through, click-through, and abandonment rates. By narrowly focusing on increasing the quality and effectiveness of targeted advertisements and placing less importance on the raw number of impressions, marketers can offset the risk that their advertisement appears alongside offensive content and simultaneously create more effective ads.