Sex, lies and digital advertising

The rise of digital advertising looks unstoppable.

Digital ad spend has increased by 7.7% every year since 2019 and hit a total of $627bn in 2023. But brands, advertisers, platforms and regulators are facing a huge challenge – the equally unstoppable rise of misleading and inappropriate digital content.

Ads appearing alongside misinformation or misleading content cast a negative light on the brands in these ads, with many consumers unsure as to whether brands, media providers or specific regulations are responsible for the parameters around how they are advertised to.

For example, AirBnB, Coca Cola, Microsoft, Disney, and Apple pulled ads from X due to severe misinformation and hateful speech on the platform after X’s new owner, Elon Musk, fired 80% of X’s global trust and safety engineers. This included antisemitic claims from Musk himself.

Avoiding advertising alongside misinformation is one thing, but so is the challenge of a brand’s digital ads simply being seen in the wrong place. So, whether that be on unsavoury sites or alongside content or ideas that do not align with brand values, both cast a shadow over brand trust and perception if the targeting and context to the end user is lost.

We see the prevalence of misplaced ads and lack of alignment with values, in the case of dating apps, Match and Bumble. Both had to pull ads from Meta (specifically Instagram reels) following a report from the Wall Street Journal that showed they were appearing alongside sexually inappropriate videos of children.

Targeting and building context can help brands avoid misplaced ads

We are currently seeing the rise in what is being called “consent marketing” due to GDPR and with the death of cookie tracking happening in H2 2024. The best way for brands to target new, relevant, and engaged audiences is using first party data within self-serve media platforms. Google have a wealth of their own first-party data to support targeting but brands should now be utilising what they know of their customers and audiences, by using their own first party segments to reach their audiences. First party data gives greater control over targeting, reaching people you already know or those who are similar, therefore giving greater context and relevance of message to that user.

But, for even more control over where ads are seen and how they are consumed, there are opportunities with independent publishers that serve audience needs with entertaining or thought-provoking content.

These spaces are hyper relevant to audience segment interests and when aligned with advertising opportunities, brands and media providers can guarantee quality inventory and deliver a valuable experience to the end user. These spots are often over-looked for being more expensive, not delivering scale of traffic, or requiring more work when planning media.

Advertising in the age of misinformation, wherever in the digital landscape you exist, is a minefield; when it comes to brand trust there is a balance to strike between buying controlled self-serve media and buying directly with individual publishers.

Trust is a key driver in brand preference and an influence on purchase behaviour – and consumer trust is even more important in the digital space. So, misinformation, or misplaced ads that compromise brand trust, is a direct business threat.

Digital content is consumed near constantly and is the source of much of consumers’ information. We are all, at every stage of ad production, from brief to media purchase, responsible for denouncing misinformation and ensuring our ads are alongside content that is truthful, is from reputable sources and that aligns with brand values and mission. We might even find the added investment and attention will pay dividends in brand trust.