Trevor Little

Research from the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council has found that almost half of consumers would rethink purchasing from brands that place adverts alongside offensive or objectionable content. While the report did not explore the effect of advertising on IP infringing sites, it does provide an opportunity to engage in discussions around the use of programmatic advertising technologies.

For its ‘How brands annoy fans’ study, the CMO council surveyed 2,000 adult consumers in the US, Canada and UK. The headline finding of its research is that 48% of respondents suggested that they would rethink purchasing from companies, or would proactively boycott their products, if they encountered brand ads alongside digital content that offends them. Crucially, even preferred brands are open to consumer punishment if advertising is positioned on untrusted media platforms or the company is not seen to be taking active steps to control the integrity of their ad environments.

Amongst the key findings were:

  • 86% of consumers are either extremely concerned, very concerned or moderately worried about how easily they are directed or redirected to hateful or offensive content
  • 43% stated that brand advertising detracts from the enjoyment of content consumed online
  • When faced with brand ads in proximity to objectionable content or fake news sites, 37% consumers said it would change the way they think of a brand when making a decision to buy. A further 11% they would flat-out not do business with that brand, while 9% said they would become vocal critics of the brand.
  • The most annoying digital advertising formats viewed as most annoying, even when appearing on trusted media channels, were intrusive pop-up ads (22%) and auto-playing video ads (17%).
  • In response, just over 40 percent of consumers have installed ad-blocking software on their devices while another 14 percent said they planned to add these features.

This particular study focuses on “fake, distressing and hateful content” rather than IP infringing content, and trademark counsel are often not involved in the decisions on where marketing collateral is placed. However, such research could provide an opportunity to engage marketing colleagues on the way that ad placement strategies can also negatively impact their endeavours – or even have a knock-on to existing practices.

On World Trademark Review we have previously covered the issue of legitimate brand advertising being placed on sites associated with infringing content. In 2014, for example, we looked at a report from the Digital Citizens Alliance which estimated that, over the previous year, piracy websites generated $227 million from advertising. In many instances, the marketing dollar was coming from major international brands. As well as adverts lending such sites an air of legitimacy, it also means that brand spend is effectively funding the types of website that many of their employees and counterparts are spending money trying to eradicate.

It is a challenge being tackled in some quarters by pro-active policing, a good example being efforts by The City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU). In January officers from the unit visited a number of organisations – including brands, advertising agencies and networks – to notify them of their involvement in the placement of ads on copyright infringing sites. The efforts are part of the multi-agency Operation Creative initiative, which sees the police working with both the creative and advertising industries to tackle websites involved in digital piracy. Last month PIPCU reported a 64% decrease in advertising from the UK’s top ad spending companies on such infringing websites. Clearly, its efforts are working.

However, in terms of IP policing globally, PIPCU is the exception rather than the rule and the battle to change ad placement practices from within is one that is difficult for trademark counsel – all too often insulated from marketing decision-making. Studies such as the CMO research therefore provide a glimmer of hope – either that practices will change or that trademark counsel can use the resulting discussion as an opportunity to raise their concerns.

At the heart of the problem is use of programmatic advertising software that automatically purchases digital ads, taking into account such metrics as traffic levels. Hence ads can unknowingly appear on infringing sites. The CMO report notes: “The desire to advertise where consumers are active online has led to a rise in spend for programmatic ads to 80 percent of digital ad budgets – or an estimated $33 billion – in the past year.”

However, the technology involves a loss of control and the report observes: “Exposure to uncontrolled and sometimes objectionable content environments has led to high-profile campaign cancellations by major advertisers and triggered concern for brand safety among leading CMOs.” Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council, adds: “CMOs and brand advertisers are increasingly concerned about various aspects of digital and programmatic advertising, including concerns about their ads showing up next to offensive content. This consumer survey demonstrates that those concerns are well founded. Advertising placed next to objectionable content is damaging to a brand while ads that accompany more trusted content and media are more accepted.”

This concern could now extend to placement on sites offering illicit content. And while it may be too much to hope that wide swathes of consumers will turn away from brands that continue to advertise on infringing sites, Maria Pousa, chief marketing office for Integral Ad Science does suggest that, when it comes to ads posing a moderate or high risk to brand reputation, placement on sites offering illegal downloads is something that companies should be concerned about.

Programmatic advertising is not likely to go away. But if efforts to take a more pragmatic approach, building in proactive surveillance of media placement, be the result of such studies, the hope is that a more watchful eye will also remove ads from IP infringing sites. At the least, it is a message that trademark professionals should be conveying to their creative colleagues while the issue is being discussed. 

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