Brand Safety: Is a Universal Rating System the Answer?

Richard Kahn - May 08, 2018

Brand safety is a top concern for many companies, particularly when it involves ad placement. Correct ad placement is crucial; a family-oriented brand can’t risk being placed on a site that hosts edgy content.

But who determines what is edgy? Unlike some industries, which use a grading scale to determine what is safe or offensive, there is no universal rating system for digital advertising. Websites aren’t assigned a PG, PG-13, or R-rating like a movie.

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Currently, the industry is like the Wild West, with each company having a different definition and tolerance for what they consider is brand safe. To eliminate confusion and increase transparency, a universal rating system may be the solution that brands need.

How It Would Work

A universal rating system would be similar to how we rate movies, but more granular. To keep up with content changes, the system would rate individual web pages in real-time.

Instead of probability statistics, which aren’t definitive, the system would perhaps use a letter or color scale to indicate levels of safety:

Letter System. Scale would range from A to F, with A being ideal and F being bad.

Color System. Scale would include three colors: green equals safe, yellow equals moderate risk, and red equals high risk.

Brand Safety

Source: The Drum

Grading would be based on audience perception instead of brand preference to make it more fair. Using brand preference only opens the door for bias plus it gets more complicated if you’re tailoring a rating system to reflect a brand’s specific needs.

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For instance, let’s say the Winter Olympics are sponsored by McDonald’s. Burger King doesn’t want any of their ads associated with the Olympics. In this scenario, the Olympics would be flagged unsafe by Burger King. Does this mean all content on NBC is unsafe for Burger King? No. But this is just one example of the problems you’d run into allowing brands to run the show.  

It’s Not a Cure, But It’s a Start

A universal rating system is a solid start, but it’s not a catch-all cure. Brand safety is still vulnerable to ad fraud, too. And there’s also the issue of choosing who will oversee the system, which will likely ignite pushback within the industry.

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At this time, it makes the most sense to have the IAB oversee the universal rating system. After all, they’re already implementing iniatives like ads.txt in an effort to get everyone on the same page. Hopefully, they would keep the momentum going if we tied in a universal rating system, too.

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Richard Kahn

Rich Kahn is the Founder and CEO of, a digital advertising firm and purveyor of the ad fraud traffic management platform Anura. He has more than 23 years of global experience in internet technology, digital advertising, and ad fraud management, and is often revered for his implementation of fraud elimination techniques and client growth. Previously, Rich founded his own internet service provider, First Street Corporation and co-founded Paid for Surf, an advertising software company, before joining the pay per click advertising network AdOrigin as its COO. Rich has held management roles at Verizon Wireless and Bloomberg.