Recently, there was a great example of the unpredictability of brand safety. It was a very positive environmental message embedded in a racy video from a brand that many would consider not brand safe… yet the content and the message was quite uplifting. In some places, the ad is very compelling, while in others it’s risky if not even inappropriate.

Brand Safety is certainly more than meets the eye. There are hundreds if not thousands of ways a message can be interpreted within the context that surrounds it, and not just on the page, site or app; there is also the country and its culture.

One anecdotal example is an experiment that got different cultures to define each other, often with completely opposing results. For example, the experiment found that Mexicans believe people from the United States are serious and reserved, while the Japanese were of the opinion that they are uninhibited and impulsive. That goes to show that culture is very relative.

Using cultural frameworks, like the one developed by Dr. Gert Hofstede, organizations have begun to focus on understanding how various dimensions of culture vary from country to country. These dimensions around how people feel and act can say a lot about the level of acceptance of certain types of messages and content.

If culture is such an important lens for brand safety, then it’s not enough to simply rely on keyword targeting or contextual analysis that current technology avails the modern marketer. The technology might one day catch up to culture idiosyncrasies associated with brand safety, but for now, it requires a careful human hand in it.


The only safe answer is boring, but realistic: everyone. 

Buyers have the most onerous position of trying to attach their message to publishers or contexts that are in line with their brands and target audiences. But like the newspaper editor of the past, who wouldn’t allow clashing content pieces to be positioned together, the publisher of the present and future also has a responsibility to make sure clashes are avoidable, at the very least. But ultimately, it is the brand that has the most to lose when there is a safety issue. Even when there is a problem and campaigns are pulled from the sites at fault, forgiveness seems to be given all too quickly. Are lessons really being learned? 

A baseline for brand safety sounds very good on paper, but as soon as that concept faces the challenges of differences between countries, even if they are very near to each other, it’s clear that any reconciliation is very hard. 

That leaves all of us in the ecosystem with the keen awareness that brand safety is a local problem, not simply regional or global, because the impacts are felt differently across multiple places in the same region. 

Industry bodies like the IAB can serve the community by highlighting these subtleties, while supporting technology and standardization efforts that help everybody involved manage it better at scale, locally as well as globally.


In Southeast Asia it is difficult to decode whether a nuanced topic like the environmental ad above would be considered safe to run. One size doesn’t fit all and we would need to take cultural, geographical and brand context into consideration. These are accountable for assessing whether any content and creative is ‘brand safe’ and even then, when the subject is close to the bone, the advert will inevitably still attract complaints. 

Efforts would be better spent on tackling the more serious issue of brand safety which comes down not to the actual ad content, but the user generated content that it is appearing next to. But that’s another story.

What we can be sure of is that, to safeguard reputable brand advertising in an online world, brands simply cannot afford not to look at every single prevention and protection option. This has to include those that lean towards purely technical capabilities but also those that allow for the examination of cultural differences and other, more subjective, nuances. Everyone has blind spots – the question is, how far would you go to protect your brand?  


This thought leadership article was written by IAB SEA+India Brand Safety Working Group Members Sinead Canny, Marketing and Communications APAC, Unruly and Nuno Jonet, Chief Product Officer, Pocketmath.