Brand Safety and Suitability in Podcast Advertising: Navigating Content Alignment And Possible Podcaster Self-Censorship

By Rob Greenlee, Spoken Life Media – rob.greenlee at gmail com

In the dynamic world of podcasting and other user-generated content (UGC), aligning an advertiser brand with specific content topics and themes that reflect its brand values has become a rapidly growing consideration. Advertisers are often concerned about their brand’s reputation in the era of social media and the battle over free speech. Brands increasingly want to ensure their ads run in brand-safe and suitably compatible politically aligned podcast shows and topics to create more accurate matching between a brand being advertised and content in the program being broadcast.

This concern brings to the fore the growing use of brand safety and suitability tools built from AI-derived transcripts and AI analyses of the context of the content to create a GARM (2) World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) moderation rating and rankings of podcast content from a historical or past episode perspective to project a show series safety and suitability for an ad buy in the future. These tools assure advertisers that their advertisements appear in content that the rating it is given aligns with their desired brand values and ethics.

Another entity with significant impact in this area starts up in full swing this coming next month. This announcement from NewsGuard’s global team of misinformation experts will have rated the top 200 news podcasts on the largest streaming platforms by January 2024. These podcasts comprise the bulk of overall news and information podcast listenership and present valuable audiences for brands to reach.

NewsGuard has partnered with three of the largest podcast streaming platforms, which will (hopefully) inform their business partners of the availability or use of this technology from NewsGuard ratings. These three large partner platform names have not been disclosed to date. Concerns around podcaster host self-censorship on the part of these news and political podcasts is a big issue.

Using the NewsGuard Podcast ratings criteria for agencies and brands can decide to:

Target only trustworthy podcasts by filtering based on overall score or risk level—for example, only buying ads on podcasts that score a 7 and above or receive a “lowest risk” rating.

Then also:
– Avoid advertising on podcasts that regularly convey false information.
– Avoid advertising on heavily biased or politically slanted news shows.

Reduced Number of Shows and Reach is a Danger to Content Creators

Brand safety can become a hindrance rather than a help to content creators and advertisers. Advertisers have reduced the number of content channels they are willing to support with advertising. This can create a monetary penalty to discuss topics that a brand may not agree with on a political spectrum that audiences may want to hear about, as the content topic could be considered misinformation or a conspiracy theory today. Still, in a future timeframe, it could be discovered to be verified truth. This has the consequence of limiting the potential reach to listeners/viewers and the campaigns’ budgets.

In a 2023 survey by Alter Agents, only 8% of podcast listeners care to avoid controversial topicsHowever, 73% of listeners say that controversial topics would not affect their purchase of brands that advertise on those podcasts. About half of listeners would think more positively of a brand after pairing with controversial content. 

There is research showing 2/3 of listeners do object to some types of speech like racist, cruel and derogitory content does turnoff listeners from a podcast. Here is an outline on this research from InsideRadio article post. Further the listeners don’t transfer the content objection to the advertiser.

Podcast brand safety versus brand suitability

While often used interchangeably, they have distinct differences. Brand safety in podcasts refers to ensuring that a brand’s advertising does not appear alongside content universally deemed inappropriate or harmful, such as the expanding scope of hate speech or explicit material. This is about avoiding negative associations that could harm the brand’s reputation and perception if the wrong association results in lower ROI or harms the brand reputation related to an advertising campaign.

On the other hand, brand suitability is more nuanced and subjective. It involves aligning a brand’s advertising with podcast content that avoids harmful content topics and resonates with the brand’s values and the interests of the brands percieved target audience wether true or accurate or not given the research showing less audience concerns or impact on advertiser brands.

The term Suitability is increasingly being used over Safety yet is still about finding the right fit for the brand in terms of podcast content rating based on GARM content ratings scales to discover the subtle context differences in discussion topics in a given historical look at past episodes of a podcast to project its content suitability for future advertising campaigns in that podcast series, and alignment of audience, ensuring that the advertising feels relevant and appropriate within the context of the specific podcast content. While brand safety sets a baseline standard for content, brand suitability goes a step further to align advertising with content that positively complements and enhances the brand’s image.

Clarification for Content Creators

For content creators, understanding brand safety and Suitability is crucial. Recognizing that brand safety doesn’t mean you need to self-censor your content to align with a specific advertiser is essential. However, the risk remains that the creator will adjust the topics to appeal to more advertisers. Losing an advertising campaign due to a misalignment or past content can be a genuine concern. However, knowing what constitutes brand-safe values and the types of content that a brand may not want to associate with is key. Advertisers increasingly influence content editorially, directing their funds toward approved content topics.

The Evolution of Content Alignment

Traditionally, brand alignment with shows focused primarily on listener demographics and genre topics. However, the podcast advertising industry has always struggled to obtain complete demographic information about audiences because of the open nature and distributed aspect of the listening side via RSS and non-demographic sharing platforms. This aspect of podcasting drives a stronger focus on content topics to target better ads based on the contextual relevance of topics to advertisers.

Debunking Myths: The True Crime and Comedy Case Study

Many advertisers hesitate to associate with specific genres like true crime or comedy due to misconceptions about their content. However, our research, including interviews with brand marketers and a survey of 6,000 podcast listeners, reveals that what marketers consider “risky” can offer significant opportunities. For instance, while true crime might be controversial, listeners often find it thought-provoking and stress-reducing. This genre, primarily attracting female listeners, offers advertisers a demographic with strong purchasing power.

Controversial Topics: Less Risky Than Thought

Consider a scenario where a listener is engaged with a comedy podcast that includes mature language. About half would think more positively of a brand after its association with controversial content. This data suggests that audiences are more receptive to ads in these contexts than previously believed.

Importance of Ad Content Quality Over Topic Fit

Interestingly, about 80% of podcast listeners listen through ads, with a significant portion recalling brands unaided. This indicates that the quality of the ad content is more critical than its thematic fit with the podcast genre. High-quality promotions that match the podcast’s style are more effective than those that strictly align with the podcast’s subject matter.

Trusting the Host

Podcast hosts play a pivotal role in influencing listeners. A study by Acast shows podcast listeners trust hosts more than any other medium. Around 80% of listeners feel it’s important for hosts to do their research, and over half trust hosts to only advertise brands worth sponsoring. Advertising on a podcast, irrespective of whether the ad is host-produced or not, generally casts the brand in a positive light.

Expanding Audio Horizons

Brands should consider broadening their horizons and experimenting with new genres, titles, and styles in their podcast promotion strategy. This approach can open up avenues to reach more engaged audiences without being restricted by overly cautious brand safety measures and increase ad spending in the podcasting industry.

Brand safety and suitability in podcast advertising is a nuanced field. Advertisers should focus on understanding their audience’s perception of different genres and leverage brand safety tools effectively and make sure they are not used to drive a politically biased and speech censoring agenda. Meanwhile, content creators must be aware of these dynamics and should not feel pressured into self-censorship and accept that certain advertisers may not be available to them if they want to discuss controversial topics.

By embracing a broader range of content and trusting in the quality of their advertisements and the influence of podcast hosts, brands can engage with their audience more effectively and authentically.

For most of the 20 years of the podcasting medium, podcasts have been primarily free speech and open distribution. Brand Safety and Suitability tools enable moderation of podcast content beyond what was previously possible.

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