Are your keyword blocklists accidentally damaging society?

Words can be incredibly powerful - and the words on your advertising block list are probably doing more harm than good. Here Channel Factory’s Chief Strategy Officer Phil Cowdell takes a look at how being unconsciously unconscious about it is no longer an option.

Would your business consciously block an online video of former US President Barack Obama in conversation about race and how to cure racism with a prominent athlete and youth icon?

Probably not.

And yet if you were to pull a list of brands which do advertise around this particular video, you’d probably find there aren’t many prominent ones. Why? Because there’s a massive problem at the heart of our systems at the moment, and no-one is really talking about it.

The problem is quite simple – we’ve baked a whole lot of biases into our advertising industrial complex which are now unconsciously discriminating against a large swathe of content creators across societal issues ranging from inclusion and sustainability to mental health.

And it is all happening unconsciously.

You see, the same systems which stop many brands from advertising around that Obama video because it has ‘racism’ in the title are blocking a lot of content which is not risky, off-brand or subversive. It’s just culture.

And this is creating huge problems, not least an internet where harmful content proliferates and helpful or good content struggles to find the light. This harmful content, much of which is unconsciously funded by brands, is creating some pretty hefty problems across the world.

Don’t worry, this isn’t (just) some moralistic rant. As I’ll explain, there are real bottom-line benefits in becoming a conscious advertiser.

Put bluntly – including previously excluded audiences means more potential customers; including excluded content means more media reach; and excluding wastage means lowering the carbon footprint of each media plan. And as ads are placed in increasingly relevant contexts attention increases and campaign performance increases. Winners all round.

If you think about what it is to be conscious, it’s about being more aware of ourselves and what exists around us. When we do this, we can actually make significant differences to our business, communities and environment.

In a sea of sameness, being conscious really sets you apart. It means you’re compelled to take a stand, shine a light and start a journey to a better, more appropriate and effective media ecosystem.

There are four phases to becoming a conscious business.

1. Unconsciously Unconscious: In this phase, we don’t know that we are acting in a way that is harmful. A good example of this is the reliance on under-supervised keywords. In the pursuit of Brand Safety there were unintended consequences of over-blocking that led to the exclusion of many creators and their communities, and underfunding of responsible journalism – something that is increasingly important.

2. Consciously Unconscious: At this phase, we’re aware there’s a problem but there’s still harm being created.

3. Consciously Conscious: At this level, we are aware of the problem and you are actively taking steps to sort it out. We intentionally correct the harm that has been manifest by previous industry decisions and actions. The key here is intentionality to correct past injustices and decisions made. At this point you may think that’s the job done. But the real goal is to get to Phase 4:

4. Unconsciously Conscious: This is the magic step where, automatically, we just don’t create harm in the first place. Wouldn’t it be better to not create harm in the first place, then have to go through steps to remove and resolve it.

So, beyond that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from doing the right thing, what are the benefits of this approach?

Well, when we are being conscious about these decisions, we suddenly open up a world of new content and audiences which are relevant to your brand.

Let’s take the pillar of DE&I. There are a lot of words which fall under this category which come under blocklists: racism, ethnicity, religion, disability, mental health, age, gender, sexual orientation, sexual preference. There’s often a lot of sensitivity around much of that language, and is therefore often deemed unsafe and unsuitable. So creators talking about these issues have been excluded.

And to go back to my example from the beginning, one of those creators is the first black President of the USA talking about racism and how we can cure it. This is a video which should almost be compulsory viewing.

But, most systems currently in place deem that as being unsuitable because they see the word racism, they don’t see ‘how to cure’. This is the issue we have within the industry. Too many of our systems take a singular view versus a contextual view of things and then make decisions on our behalf that we probably wouldn’t make as people.

We’ve been working at overcoming these issues. And while we’re by no means 100% perfect, we’re already seeing some massive results for brands willing to open their eyes and be more conscious.

Menulog for example did it and found they increased performance, with a 58% reduction in Overall CPMs and a campaign that was 63% more sustainable.

Ironically, it’s actually brands from more regulated industries like wagering, alcohol and pharma which are embracing these systems because they need to avoid advertising to the wrong groups of people. And each of them has their own story of how much more efficient their media is as a result.

This isn’t about being woke, or becoming some sort of campaigning brand overnight. It’s a good business story. That is, a story about how being a good business is really good for business. And at the end of the day, that should be an easy thing for anyone to adopt.


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