How to Overcome the Brand Suitability Challenge

By Dan Granger

Advertising has a dire brand suitability problem and needs a systematic solution. The advertising-fueled attention economy has incentivized publishers and social platforms to support the loudest and angriest voices with few safeguards in place to allow brands to exclude false, misleading, and divisive content while prioritizing the suitability factors most important to their business.

Major advertisers leaving Twitter in droves, reportedly over concerns that the network's new owner, Elon Musk, will decrease content moderation, speaks to the need for stronger brand suitability standards.

Advertisers and publishers need to rally around a system to identify the quality and accuracy of content. This would empower them to choose media based on their values and factors relevant to their individual brands. This is not only vital for advertising but for the broader media industry it finances and for consumers who depend on that information.

Enter content nutrition labels. This equivalent of the nutrition labels we trust to identify the ingredients and healthiness of food can improve media by helping advertisers understand the quality and characteristics of online information at scale.

Then, advertisers can choose which publications to support. This would incentivize publishers and content platforms to root out qualities that advertisers almost universally dislike, such as misinformation. It would also provide advertisers transparency into whether media includes, say, sexually explicit content, profanity, or controversial treatment of social issues, which are factors that vary in their importance to brands.

Here's how content nutrition labels might work and how they would benefit the three main categories of media stakeholders: advertisers, publishers, and consumers.

How Content Nutrition Labels Can Work

There are three aspects to content nutrition labels on which those of us in the advertising community must align: metrics, mechanics, and enforcement.

First, advertisers will need to determine what qualities they want to measure in content and how to define those metrics. For example, advertisers may want to label content based on its accuracy, tolerance, and level of violence. A trade organization of brands or other trusted third party will need to define these terms qualitatively so that algorithms can then assess content for them using quantitative, scalable processes.

Organizations like the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) have provided a helpful foundation for content evaluation by creating standards with long-dominant channels like display in mind. Content nutrition labels will need to continually supplement GARM's standards by accounting for the differences between media formats.

For example, technologies are starting to emerge to assess the brand suitability of fast-evolving channels like audio, where traditional brand suitability categories like "full nudity" do not easily apply. But nutrition labels could go a long way toward spurring widespread adoption of brand suitability standards and technologies for younger channels. There are also positive attributes such as expressions of tolerance, respect, and engagement across differences that the advertising community may wish to support.

One factor to consider in the mechanical process will be the level of granularity at which content is examined. This will be like the analyses that power contextual ad targeting. For example, will an individual Joe Rogan podcast, Joe Rogan's show in its entirety, or Spotify be assessed to understand the suitability of the program for advertising? Ultimately, the process should function at the most granular level while evaluating both the content and its author or host.

Next, advertisers need to advance and widely adopt technology capable of vetting content for agreed-upon metrics at scale. This is no small task. Humans cannot vet billions of words or recordings, but AI will come with simplification. So, in addition to developing AI that can analyze a great deal of content, advertisers will need a system to elevate some content to higher and more intensive stages of review. This could include individual human moderators and ultimately a Supreme Court-style council that sits outside of content networks and platforms.

Finally, content nutrition labels can only be effective if managed by non-partisan third parties without a financial interest in the outcomes of the media being rated. An industry of third-party content auditors is rapidly emerging to target this problem. The end system will likely use AI and require human review for especially complex or high-reach cases that lead to appeals, and it will need to be administered by an independent adjudicator.

How Content Nutrition Labels Will Benefit Media Stakeholders

Americans don't like to be told what to do. That's why a content nutrition label system will need to be agreed upon and enforced by advertisers, not consumers or elected representatives. Advertisers will use such a system to decide what content to finance with their media dollars. This will reorient the media ecosystem toward high-quality, accurate content, discouraging misinformation or hateful content peddled for clicks. It will also better align advertisers with publishers suited to their brands.

While some consumers may rebuke nutrition labels, they will benefit from more transparency regarding the characteristics of the media they consume. Nutrition labels could provide one destination or system to foster media literacy. Let's maintain Americans' freedom to consume the content of their choice while educating them about their options and providing financial incentives for publishers and content-driven platforms to better serve them.

This would, as advocates of the shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism have advocated, be capitalism in service of democracy — the freedom of advertisers to choose where they spend their money guiding the media ecosystem toward the more informed and tolerant electorate on which democracy depends.

As for advertisers, with content nutrition labels, they will get the brand suitability shorthand for which they have been clamoring. Near-universal standards will equip them to limit reputational exposure because of advertising and reach the consumers engaging with high-quality content that advertisers want associated with their brand.

For their part, publishers will be rewarded for providing premium, highly accurate content that respects the basic dignity of their readers. Most publishers, especially premium publishers, do not appreciate the destructive dynamics of the misinformation- and sensationalism-fueled attention economy any more than advertisers and consumers.

With nutrition labels, all media stakeholders will benefit from a more transparent industry and a healthier content diet. Even opposing forces in the fierce debate over the future of Twitter should be able to agree on that.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Dan Granger is the CEO and founder of Oxford Road.