Are words like ‘Gay’, ‘Black’ and ‘Muslim’ on your brand-safety block list?

20th January 2022

Ad blocking terms such as ‘Gay’, ‘Black’ and ‘Muslim’ can be harming your brand’s digital reach, cutting you off from major diversity media outlets and consumer spending.

It may come as a surprise to many not familiar with the advertising industry that words such as ‘Bisexual’, ‘Gay’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Black’ and ‘Jewish’ have traditionally been included on keyword block lists for digital brand-safety.

The original process was implemented to protect a brand’s digital media or content from popping up in controversial and damaging places across the internet, with words such as ‘death’, ‘gun’, ‘heroin’ and ‘rape’ being examples of heavily blocked keywords.

However, when words that simply described different demographic groups and communities – for example ‘Black’, ‘Asian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Interracial’, ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Gay’ – began to rank higher than the likes of ‘death’, ‘rape’ and ‘heroin’ on brand block lists, we knew there was a gross oversight of discriminatory stereotyping occurring in the media industry. Worse – it was one that was equally as damaging to consumers as the brands themselves.

Could this shot-in-the-dark strategy have been a shot-in-the-foot all along? What started out as a preventative measure used to block adult and harmful content, quickly resulted in the failure of advertisers maximising their reach by missing out on crucial touchpoints in a consumer’s life.

How keyword ad blocking has played a part in inaccurate data and insight

For decades, many tools and records of data used by agencies for diversity media in terms of insight, buying and planning has been wholly inaccurate and misrepresentative of diverse communities. There has been significant bias in the collection of data and ad blocking has played part in this. How can we accurately record the spending behaviours of diverse communities if we are cutting off certain demographic groups from even consuming our adverts?

The sophistication and advancement in technology today leaves no excuse for such exclusion of diverse communities and in a world where the authenticity of B2C interactions matter more than ever before, a re-evaluation of block listed keywords is heavily overdue.

It’s a shocking truth but also a widely known fact that Black consumers endure racial discrimination in the marketplace (also known as consumer racial profiling or consumer racism). From being given poor customer service to being denied services all together, this experience is so widely shared that Black communities and academics have a term for it: ‘Shopping while Black’.

Sadly, the experience has resulted in many individuals avoiding shopping centres and stores in real life and instead taking to the internet for their everyday purchases. But when advertisers block ‘Black people’ from their content and media, it makes you question whether consumer racism isn’t just something that happens at one store in one neighbourhood with one brand.

Marsha Cooke, Senior Vice President of Impact at Vice Media Group, recently called out advertisers for their choices on ‘brand-safe’ keywords when she found phrases such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and — in one case — ‘Black people’ included on ad block lists. This certain block list was sent to Vice by an advertising agency that represented a large entertainment corporation and “it was sent the very same week that the corporation issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin, co-founders of Check My Ads Institute, amusingly put: “A keyword blocklist is kind of like a brand’s secret diary. It reveals all their collective corporate neuroses: their deepest fears, associations they want to avoid, and the topics they’re uncomfortable with.”

The irony here is that the spending power still lies with the consumer. So if your brand isn’t actively trying to racially profile or discriminate against certain communities, it may be time to review your ad block lists as soon as possible.

On the flip side, if you’re an ad agency and have your client’s best interest at heart, you can follow in Vice’s footsteps and restrict certain words from appearing on brand block lists. In 2019, Vice put out a statement declaring it would no longer accept the following words or phrases that were traditionally found on keyword block lists:

Examples of block list terms used by brands

InterracialMiddle EasternArabAsianLatina/o
Global WarmingClimate ChangeRefugeeImmigrantFat

Of course, there’s underlying satire in all of this – that a block list created as a form of ‘brand-safety’ could in fact be the very reason your brand is failing to achieve its maximum potential…

Marsha Cooke highlighted the notion as ‘the brand-safety paradox’. Ask yourself, could your current brand-safety block list be putting your brand in danger? Are your communications invisible to LGBTQ/Black/Muslim and several other audiences online?

How important are diverse communities to your brand?

It’s not a trick question until you question what it means to be a diverse community, or if it’s even possible to be a part of just one. As humans, we are multi-faceted creatures who behave in extremely unique ways, changing our habits and attitudes daily.

Everything from the way you’re seen and perceived, how you dress, what you eat, the things you celebrate and value, people you look up to, your family relationships – these are all factors that form the identity of a consumer and need to be considered when creating the content and media that you will consume.

For example, the actions and behaviours of one Gay individual will differ enormously from another Gay individual. Almost all diverse communities will overlap with another and another and another, and as time goes on it’ll be harder to place people in a box. So, when it comes down to keyword ad blocking, you could be cutting off your ideal consumer by adding a generic term like ‘Gay’ to your block list.

A lot of brands try to be ‘down with the kids’ and want Gen Z as their target audience, but add terms like ‘LGBTQ’, ‘Muslim’ or ‘Black’ to your block list, and you are immediately missing out on reaching masses of Gen Z consumers.

Further to this, allyship has become an incremental part of today’s culture, meaning consumers can be Heterosexual-White and still not buy from your brand if they feel like your advertising isn’t inclusive of say, Transgender-Black consumers.

You don’t need to be LGBTQ+ to attend Pride, or Black to attend Carnival. Cultures and interests crossover all the time and there’s nothing stopping someone who doesn’t identify as LGBTQ+ from consuming queer fashion, picking up a copy of Gay Times, or binging the new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

Sadly, the short-sightedness of brands using such broad terms for keyword ad blocking has cut off masses of brand-safe content and media from reaching some of the fastest growing demographic groups in the world.

It doesn’t make sense for a brand in 2021 to exclude communities like LGBTQ+, whose consumer spend in the UK alone is valued at £6billion. Additionally, ethnic-minority groups have a spending power of £300billion in the UK, but only 1 in 5 companies reach out to them as consumers.

That’s why we help our clients diversify their media, content and marketing to be intrinsically inclusive and representative of communities, uniting brands with consumers authentically through strong contextual relevance.

By combining our culturally lived experiences and industry-wide expertise, it’s our job to maximise the reach of each client campaign, helping you build an authentic brand story along the way. Reputation is far too costly in today’s ‘cancel-culture’ where brands need to get it right on the first go.

Stand up. Stand out.
Stand united.