Brand Safety Guide

Brand Safety

This guide supports you in dealing with the term “brand safety”. It explains and defines different concepts like legal safety, brand suitability, and brand compliance. If you experience any potential brand safety issues that are not covered here, please contact us for further support ( 

Brand safety definition

Brand safety is an overall term for a variety of measures and controls designed to safeguard a brand’s image, reputation, and values when advertising online. Primarily, it defines the publisher’s obligation to ensure its content does not violate applicable law. Secondly, it refers to the processes put in place to assure brands that their ads will not be delivered to pages containing undesirable or inappropriate content.

If both approaches are followed, it is safe to say that a publisher can guarantee that its content is generally fit for monetisation, and that a brand can be sure to avoid content that is considered to be inappropriate for any advertising. 

Brand safety categories

Brand safety is backed by a set of industry standards and benchmarks. Most importantly, the IAB Tech Lab identifies the following brand safety categories as sensitive or unsafe topics:

  • Adult & Explicit Sexual Content
  • Arms & Ammunition
  • Crime & Harmful Acts to Individuals and Society and Human Right Violations
  • Death & Injury
  • Military Conflict
  • Online Piracy
  • Hate Speech & Acts of Aggression
  • Obscenity and Profanity
  • Illegal Drugs/Tobacco/E-Cigarettes/Vaping/Alcohol
  • Spam or Harmful Content
  • Terrorism
  • Sensitive Social Issues

A publisher needs to guarantee that none of the provided inventory matches any of these categories. If this is the case, the inventory counts as brand safe. At smartclip, we check this by using our media quality process before a new publisher or an existing one with new inventory goes live. We check the websites and/or apps with our ad verification partners as well as with a manual process. Moreover, a publisher needs to communicate the relevant IAB categories to smartclip so they are implemented into our adserver smartx to achieve an even higher level of transparency.

Special case: general news regarding brand safety 

In a study published in October 2020, IAB reports that news content is brand safe — quoting the CEO of the IAB David Cohen:

We urge brands and their agencies to consider news a viable, scaled, brand-safe, and business-driving environment.”

According to IAB’s consumer survey and research, news publishers are not only considered to be brand-safe, but additionally help improve consumer trust — 84% of consumers indicate trust remains neutral or increases for news advertisers as a result of their advertising presence.

General news publishers have the editorial obligation to publish articles and broadcast news that might involve some of the above-mentioned categories such as “military conflicts” or “death & injury”. As long as the source of the content is from high-quality news sources and does not include fake news, clickbait, or a sensational writing style, this inventory is brand safe. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing this topic with the clients before booking a campaign or setting up a deal, because a wrong setting within the client’s brand safety tool might lead to confusion and brand safety mismatches. 


Corona: During the start of the pandemic, many advertisers panicked and marked every Corona-related article as unsafe by adding the keyword “corona” to the blocklist provided by their ad verification vendor. Only a few advertisers analysed the content to distinguish between negative, positive, and neutral Coronavirus news by adding specific homepages and site sections to its page-level exceptions list. Furthermore, almost none of the advertisers took into account that Corona is also a beer brand, or that corona means “crown” in Spanish. This led to a massive decrease in reach and campaign scale.

Die and war: “Die”, in German translates to “the” and the word “War”, translates to “was” — which are both frequently occurring and innocuous words in German. “Die” and “War” in English may have a negative connotation — e.g., “many people are expected to die from coronavirus” or “the war in Ukraine forced hundreds of civilians to leave their homes behind”. These words in German and English do not represent the same ideas or meanings, which could further decrease reach if not addressed. 

Killing: “Killing me softly“ is the name of a song and also part of its lyrics, but an article referencing “the killing of innocent children” is, of course, highly-sensitive content.

Shooting: There is a sizeable difference between the meaning of shooting hoops in basketball, shooting photos, shooting stars, and shooting a gun.

In these cases, it is the duty of every ad verification provider to not only bring these differences to clients’ attention, but also advise them to choose the correct brand safety settings, and — more importantly —, provide a technology that is capable of recognising these differences. 

Brand suitability definition

If a publisher provides inventory that does not match any of the IAB brand safety categories, we can use the term “legal safety” which is synonymous for brand safety. This is the minimum requirement a publisher needs to fulfil when it comes to the quality of their content — except for general news which is a special case as explained above.

Every aspect beyond this legal safety, is very subjective because it becomes the advertiser’s decision if the content is suitable for its brand. We call this “brand suitability” and recommend that every client establishes a brand suitability strategy. Clients are encouraged to communicate this strategy with the ad verification provider and implement these settings within the ad verification tool.


1. An article titled “Top 5 Drinks that Smash You Surprisingly Fast” is inappropriate for most advertisers, but it might be the perfect content for promoters of spring break vacations or college parties. Meanwhile, an article titled “Best Wines to Pair with Your Thanksgiving Turkey” is usually not classified as risky and is considered appropriate content for most advertisers. 

Therefore, we recommend that the individual brand suitable preferences of each client (brand suitability strategy) should not only be discussed with the verification provider and setup in their tools, but needs to become a part of every campaign briefing. This gives the sales houses and publishers the chance to find the right content for the client. Moreover, this saves a lot of time and resources as occasionally, a publisher’s inventory is not brand suitable, and the information reaches the sales houses or publishers only when the campaign is already over. In these instances, optimisations are no longer possible.

2. While a cosmetics company might want to run ads alongside mature content and dating advice in a fashion magazine, this would most likely not be the ideal environment for a CPG brand promoting family-focused dinner tips.

Once again, it is important to understand that brand suitability is unique to each brand, to its image, and the specific situation (news event, content, or publisher). What may increase scale and consumer visibility for one brand could be damaging to another. A brand suitability strategy is therefore incremental as part of the overall brand safety setting.

Moreover, brand suitability is not static. Even the IAB points this out, whilst it is important to have a general approach to brand safety, emerging events or news need to be assessed independently as the brand’s strategy may change over time. For example, creating a blocklist for specific keywords and adding more keywords over time is simply not enough.

Even if the client is working with an ad verification vendor, it is still worth taking the brand safety targeting by smartclip into account as a further adjustable entity to not harm the brand image.

Brand compliance definition

Brand compliance completes the brand safety sub-categories and although this term may seem simplistic, it should not be overlooked. As the brand safety categories show an overall picture of how to define sensitive or unsafe content, brand compliance takes certain advertising restrictions, along with local and geographical differences into account.


Cannabis and gambling are legal in some states of the U.S. which means advertising for these products and services is also legal. In other countries, both are illegal or require a special licence. An advertiser needs to be informed about whether advertising is allowed or if there are restrictions in place within the market they plan to start a campaign. 

Alcohol is a topic that requires similar attention. There are different legal drinking ages across the globe, so advertisers must ensure the advertisement is only shown to the users within this drinking age. Moreover, some countries do not allow liquor advertisements to air at certain times of the day or at all.

Brand safety vendors

Ad verification vendors’ role in providing tools and reports regarding the brand safety rate of the publisher’s inventory is often underestimated. Simply generating these reports and offering the advertisers the chance to create a keyword blocklist to declare content unsafe — where the presence of one word from the list deems the content unsafe— is not enough. Ad verification vendors should not only scan the publisher’s URLs or single words, but also be able to differentiate between languages, phrases, proper names, and common sayings. They should take the whole content and its context into account.


In the past, we discovered the following cases declared unsafe:

1. The name of the article’s photographer was Maria Panzer. “Panzer” is the German word for tank and therefore the whole article was flagged as unsafe.

2. During an interview, the interviewee answered a question very fast so the author used the German phrase “wie aus der Pistole geschossen.” This German phrase means “as quick as the shot from a gun.” This phrase involving the word gun was the reason the whole article was declared unsafe.

The definition of the German word “entführen” refers either to a win by the away team or the act of stealing a point in a game,, but in English it is translated as “kidnapping”. So, this sports article was categorised as unsafe.

We have many more examples, but this underlines how important the transparency of the brand safety measurement is. State-of-the-art technology, should have the ability to understand phrases and the whole article’s context — even in different languages.

Brand safety, the neverending story…?

In the end, it should be quite clear to every market participant what traffic is brand safe and when we are specifically talking about subjective brand suitability. We all know the discussion regarding brand safety between publishers, sales houses, media agencies, and clients and it is often complicated, but it could become easier if everyone does their part.

What ad verification vendors are responsible for:

Ad verification providers need to be transparent when it comes to evaluating the publisher’s content. As this is a highly sensitive topic and might damage the reputation of a publisher when its content gets falsely declared unsafe, the ad verification providers must prove that their technology can check the whole content and its context and not only the URL, for example.

Moreover, they need to consult their clients when it comes to the different brand safety types and settings within the tool. The client needs to understand the difference between brand safety and brand suitability. They need to be able not only to create a blocklist and keep adding words to it, but continue to maintain and update this list. They need to know that they can create a URL whitelist and adapt their brand safety setting, e.g. from floor risk to high risk.

All of these aspects need to be communicated to the clients by the providers and they need to be part of the discussion during daily business. Simply delivering a report but not facilitating communication between all other parties involved is not enough.

What media agencies and/or advertisers are responsible for:

Agencies and clients need to create an in-depth brand suitability strategy based on the unique values of their brand. They should define what content is suitable for the brand and create a brand suitability framework using this information as a basis.

Afterwards, they need to communicate this framework to the ad verification vendor of their choice and set it up within the tool. They should not only create a blocklist of specific words but use the full range of available brand suitability options like domain whitelisting, creating levels of brand suitability, and taking differences regarding the geo-location, culture, language, etc. into account.

This setting needs to be part of the briefing when booking a campaign or setting up a deal. It should be part of the conversation alongside information on booked impressions, run time, targeting, or frequency capping, because a campaign or deal can only be optimised before the start date and/or whilst they are live.

What publishers are responsible for:

Publishers need to guarantee that none of the provided inventory matches any of the IAB brand safety categories. If this is the case, the inventory counts as brand safe. Furthermore, according to their place of residence and geographical user structure, they should communicate potential local or regional restrictions when it comes to advertising.

Additionally, in very rare cases such as critical catastrophes or disasters, they can deactivate ad placements on specific parts of their websites where the reporting of these disasters take place.

What sales houses are responsible for:

Sales houses need to consider two factors. On one hand, they must check if their partner’s inventory is brand safe — e.g. by using the tools provided by ad verification vendors. On the other hand, they must optimise the campaigns according to the brand suitability strategies of their clients. Moreover, they should focus on new releases by the IAB when it comes to the definition of brand safety, and communicate the findings to publishers and clients.

In the end, optimising the complex brand safety discussion is achievable if every involved party does their part and agrees on the brand safety definition and terminology set by the IAB. With transparency and communication, it is possible for publishers to offer brand safe inventory and for buyers to create sustainable and realisable brand suitability strategies together with their ad verification vendors. 

For further information and support, please contact

Brand Safety Guide

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Martin Voss

Martin Voss is the Head of Platform Support at smartclip.

Martin Voss
Head of Ad Verification & Analytics