What does the real landscape for brand risk and digital ads look like?
SPI Interactive investigates over 900 major sites in their.
“Brand Risk Analysis for Digital Ad Placement”



Over the past few years, the active use of digital advertising in marketing activities has become mainstream, and a wide range of targeting methods are employed to raise brand recognition, and carry out customer acquisition, as well as sales activities. The flip side of such activities is the increased risk of brand damage caused by digital advertising, which has created a challenge in the market which cannot be ignored.

After many requests from our clients, we analyzed the risk of various situations, and concluded that risk can never be fully mitigated even with the introduction of certain advertising tools* as countermeasures. What we came to realize was the need to be able to determine a diverse manner of risky situations. It is our hope that this report will help you in your brand marketing activities as a reference to understand the risk inherent in today’s digital advertising market.

SPI Interactive
Senior Director
Issei Tanaka

*"Brand damage and detection/prevention tool for illegal bots"

<The Purpose of this Report>

A Survey of Brand Risk in Digital Advertising


With a wide range of digital advertising methods available, including display, search, social networks, video, and more, it is nearly impossible to keep track of where an ad is placed. To this end, we conducted a thorough investigation to determine the brand risk in advertising destinations, with a focus on brand loss. At present, we determined there are two major problems.

  1. Issues with the quality of the site content and mobile app content where the ad is placed.
    When ads are placed on sites that contain content that is either illegal or caters to content that is contrary to public order or morals, the brand can be negatively impacted.
    1. Ads by a global food maker is placed within obscene video content.
    2. An ad by a global FMCG maker is posted in a video site that caters to extreme political views.
    3. Ads by an approved drug maker are placed in curated media which describe inappropriate drugs.
  2. Ads by other companies placed on the same site or mobile app
    When there are multiple ad spaces available within a site, there is a risk of your company’s ad being placed next to another company’s ad which contains a risk, creating a negative impression.
    1. Misrepresented ads. Ads which conflict with the law against misleading presentations. Ads which contain information which are unfounded in fact
    2. Ads for products or services that are possibly fraudulent.
    3. Ads which contain obscene or offensive content.
    4. Affiliate ads (ads which are not directly by a manufacturer, but through an affiliate).
    Other risky advertisers look for opportunities to boost the reliability of their ads, products and services in order to expand their business by placing their ads beside ads by companies that are "trustworthy" and have "brand value."


Ad research conducted between: October 2017 – September 2018
Site content surveyed: February 2019 - June 2019
Ads within sites surveyed between:February 2019 – June 2019

<Scope of Survey>

  1. Content posted on major sites
  2. Ads placed on major sites

<Survey Method>

  1. We used a placement list which was previously used with multiple clients included in top 100 brands of Forbes “The World’s Most Valuable Brands”.
  2. We selected a main site (major site) *, and conducted a visual check** of the site content as well as ads served on the same site.
  3. Ads subject to this research were display ads. (Including some video ads).
  4. Devices subject to research were PC only. Smartphone and APP type content and ads were not covered.
  5. 927 major sites (number of sites) were visually ascertained.
    1. Total placements for our clients: 44,904
    2. Placement selected from among major categories picked from all placements: 4,546
    3. Major categories selected from main sites: 927***
  6. There are 15 categories designated as risky, and 14 categories were examined for ads served within the same site, excluding LA (Language). ****
    Copy rights/Piracy
    Drag/Medicine/Medical device and related
    Alcoholic beverages
    Health/Beauty related
    Financial product/service
    Morally Reprehensible

*The main site refers to the site selected by SPI Interactive. The selection criteria are (1) the main sites must be clear lye with the operator information. (2) Sites listed in the advertising report by multiple clients.

** For each major site, 10-20 pages of content and ads were examined, then extracted to analyze the risk of the content and ads contained within. For ads served on the same site, if the at-risk ad could not be confirmed during the visual confirmation phase, it is assumed no such ad was placed. Moreover, due to the characteristics of targeted ads such as DSPs, certain search terms were used to check if at-risk ads were displayed. During the visual confirmation phase, it is assumed that ads could be off-target, while the effects of placing a frequency cap, as well as using brand safety tools do not reduce the risk of display of risky ads by 100%. Since placement lists only cover the "top domains", pages published in the past cannot be determined. Therefore, multiple levels below the top domain were crawled to conduct the check.

*** Main sites were selected by SPI Interactive as being representative of digital advertisement destinations. Major sites include, specialized portals, blog portals, news portals and video sites.

****Please note that there are categories and subcategories which are deemed not to be at-risk based on standards established by brands and manufactures.

<Survey result>

(A) Site content risk and other client’s ad risk: Share of placement list

  1. For the 927 main sites out of 44,904 of the total advertising destinations for existing clients, we observed that 57.8% of the ads served on a site alongside the client ads possessed risk factors. Main sites that did not then contain risk factors are also subject to future content changes. Therefore, it is important to understand that there is a possibility that content or ads deemed risky may be displayed at a future date. (Figure 1) Figure 1
  2. Although not all sites were verified, those sites other than the main sites, totaling roughly 44,000, often had untraceable management, or operators which were not displayed, with most content being “Summary sites” or “Personal blogs.” This is considered to be UGC (User Generated Content) and results in lower quality content, and many ads were placed in sites harboring such content.

(B) Key risk factors found within site content

table 1

  1. AP:Adult/Pornography

    Sites containing adult content /pornographic content totaled 6.6%. This included swimsuit photos of idols, images of the pubic region with no masking, or obscene text content. Even if the content is not illegal under Japanese law, and the target audience visits such sites, there is a risk of brand loss for ads to be placed in the vicinity of such content.
  2. MR:Morally Reprehensible

    There were also many sites which contained gossip, rumor-mill, or information on victims of criminal cases. As is the case with adult content, there is a risk of brand loss for ads to be posted in the vicinity of such content.
  3. LA:Language

    The client placement list designated the language environment to be “Japanese.” However, we observed some ads being placed in sites which were in other languages. While placing ads in a different language environment may not incur brand loss, it does place ads in front of an audience which was not targeted in the first place, and as such is an unnecessary use of the advertising budget.
  4. When we break down the category of risk, we found adult content comprises 27%, language: 22%, morality/ethics, 16%, and the remainder being language, together with sensational content which grabs a reader’s attention. (FIGURE 2-A) FIGURE 2-A
  5. When broken down by site category, official portal sites accounted for 64% of the whole. This appears to be due to the fact that the range of content handled by portal sites is wide, making it easy for them to contain problematic content. (FIGURE 2-B) FIGURE 2-B

(C) Risk factors for ads served on same site

table 2

  1. The risk factors for advertisers serving ads within the same space encompass the advertised products, services, ad copies and images, as well as landing page as well as ad content. Special attention should be given when a display or search ad directs traffic to an affiliate site and not the official manufacturer site. Based on our research, we found the following products and services advertised. (FIGURE 3-A)
    • Healthcare/Beauty/Health Foods/Supplements
    • Information products/Investment products
    • Side business/monitors
    • Dating/matching services
    • Adult content
    FIGURE 3-A
  2. Two cases we observed of advertising on affiliates
    1. While no problems were observed with the products and services which were evaluated or introduced on the sites, we did encounter content which was of a questionable nature. Affiliate sites work on a performance reward (CPA). During our research we observed affiliate sites which built or presented contents in a way that invited confusion or mis-understanding on the part of the consumer in order to increase the number of acquisitions. Putting aside the methods used to acquire acquisitions, and even if all the information used was factual, there is still the problem that the very nature of an affiliate site is that they are rewarded for acquisitions. As an advertiser, we recommend trying to eliminate affiliate sites as a place to place ads on.
    2. We observed several cases where the manufacturer or seller engaged in marketing activities for fraudulent products and services, bypassing affiliate advertising and failed to post any contact information. In many cases, there was no description or information provided of the affiliate operator and management.
  3. AP:Adult/Pornography

    Adult content was classified as below. Outside of overseas video sites, we observed no illegal advertisements such as nude images of females without masking of genitalia. In the case of adult games, we observed “obscene images and ad copies” for display ads in order to gain the attention viewers.

    While dating/matching services are not illegal, they are intended for adults over 18. Therefore, the risk factor leans more towards how the service itself is used, which should be considered.
    On news portal sites, we observed job advertisements for positions in "Cabaret" establishments. While the site itself is famous, we cannot say that there is negligible risk.

    Within blog portals, due to the fact that corporations and individuals both produce blogs, there is a chance that contents are not carefully examined. It is not uncommon for sex service-related content to be provided as ad space within a blog summary site.

    Of course, it cannot be denied that adult content demands attention. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate how appropriate it would be to advertise a brand under adult content. (FIGURE 3-B)

    table 3

  4. TA:Tobacco

    In the tobacco category, we observed ads related to "E-cigarette (vapor/VAPE)." The ads themselves had not mention of the product being “tobacco”, and instead contained an ad copy stating, "heating up a liquid to enjoy water vapor”, with no statement of “not for minors” in the ad copy.
  5. OT:Others

    Within the category of ads being served on the same site, there is a "new threat" that could be added to the categories of risks, namely services and products that are "legally grey " or are "unable to be determined as to their legal status.” This is because it is only after the ad is served that a government supervisory agency can identify whether or not something illegal has transpired and confirm damage, such as violation of the prize display law, financial transaction law, pharmaceuticals law, fraud etc. Therefore, if placing an advertisement may expose the brand to risk, it is necessary to take measures to ensure that the ad is not served in the same space.

    Also, in some cases, there are ads that target the lower income bracket, or ads for social lending services where transparency in the management of such entities or financial management is often severely limited.

    Damage to the brand caused by serving the branded ad in the same space as a risk prone ad will make it difficult to recover from damage after the fact.

    Over the past year, TV and news shows have raised this issue, and it has drawn the attention of the Consumer Affairs Agency. Although ads are placed through different DSP's, there is a risk that an ad could be served within the same space as a risk-prone ad due to insufficient review, management, or supervision of ads on part of the publisher sites. (FIGURE 3-C)

    table 4


<Future Prospects and Countermeasures>

  1. (A) Content and quality of sites publishing ads.

    Currently, monitoring and management of site and content including UGC (User Generated Contents) are being enhanced by site operators. However, since these improvements are usually not yet completely reliable, it is prudent to confirm the degree of risk involved when selecting a site and its media, including UGC content, at the planning stage. In order to minimize this risk, there is also a trend to actively seek sites where quality is secured by Professionally Generated Contents (PGC).

    In particular, having ads served by a network, it is necessary to pay attention to the ad serving destinations since it is not possible to select those sites that maintain a certain standard in quality.
  2. (B) The quality of third-party ads on publisher sites

    Advances in digital advertising media diversification and ad-tech tools have broadened the reach of players using digital advertising. Although each media has established a voluntary advertising insertion standard, it is not as clear as TVCM advertising, and the reasons for why an ad is placed or not placed is essentially opaque.

    Non-major media appear to have low or no ad screening criteria, and issues relating to brand loss have also gradually surfaced. While digital space has allowed for simpler and more effective placement of ads, it has also made it the target of advertisers wanting to push highly illegal products and services, who take advantage of the current status of inadequate digital advertisement screening and government control.

    The publisher site also develops radical content, images and videos, catch-ups, etc., in order to increase the number of visitors that affect advertising revenue. Low quality sites and advertisements are crowded as a result of such target acquisition.

    While this problem is inherent in the business model of digital advertising, major publishers are attempting to add better monitoring and management of advertisement distribution, video content, affiliate and blog sites. Despite their best efforts, it has not been possible to completely eliminate it. To promote an overall better environment for YDN, Yahoo! has tightened their screening of performance fee-based sites.

    While decreasing, there are still a few bot sites to be found, which means that paying for unnecessary advertising costs are still a reality. There is also a risk that some of the publishers included in this placement list were unknown, making the stream of money opaque in some cases.
  3. Summary

    At present, there is no way to solve all these issues at once. In the future manufacturers and brands who pose as advertisers, advertising agencies who plan and select advertising media, advertising media companies that serve ads, SSP/DSP who provide cost-effective ad serving, as well as tech vendors who provide ad fraud / brand safety services, will all need to wrestle with these issues.

    Even among our clients, there is a difference in the knowledge and approach taken when dealing with damage inflicted on a brand, or bots. This means that the actions needed to be taken by each company encompass not only questions surrounding brand loss, but need to fulfill certain business models and goals.

    The following describes one possible solution.
    1. Formulate guidelines to eliminate brand risk for in-house ads, and instruct advertising agencies on how to select ad-serving destination media and ad placement during the planning phase. By tightening these conditions, it is possible that advertising sites and ad placement may be reduced, which would further reduce IMP / Click and target reach. Therefore, it will be extremely important to consider the balance between the target, KPI and company's advertising ethics.
    2. When selecting media, only select media for that submit a “Placement Report” or for which such a report can be confirmed. Media that do not submit such a report, or for which such a report cannot be confirmed, need to be assessed for the risk they pose as an ad destination.
    3. Since examination of digital ads is still largely inadequate, a company should take measures against brand risk for its own ads by implementing ad tech tools as well as site and ad management of ad publishers.
    4. Since ad tech tools are insufficient where it comes to mitigating brand risk or damage caused by bots, we suggest ad checks performed by a third party. In particular, it is difficult for ad tech tools to make a determination where it comes to images of adult or pornographic categories, inappropriate poses, underage models, or the illegality of sideline ad services and products. In these cases, other methods beyond ad tech tools are required. Additionally, it is necessary to have specialized knowledge, including those of law and industry regulations in order to determine legality of such ads and products/services.
    5. If it is necessary to eliminate brand loss, we suggest the creation of a white list and the use of an agency. Whitelists are regularly checked and updated and take into consideration the constantly changing content within a site and side ads. There is a risk that domains can be spoofed even when using whitelists, therefore it is necessary to consider viable options to avoid any spoofing.
    6. Since it is difficult at present to completely eliminate brand risk when serving ads through existing open auction DSPs, we suggest the use of PMP (private marketplace) on top of careful selection of DSPs. However, this is based on the premise that it is possible to control the selection and placement of the ad.

Authors: Issei Tanaka (Senior Director), TakahiroDoi (CEO), Michiko Asakura(Senior Manager)

For further requests such as detailed research report materials, brand risk research, brand risk ad tech tool introduction support, and preparation of a white list, please contact us at contact.info@spi-interactive.co.jp

<Notes on citation, reproduction, and use of this report>
※ This report was work performed on the behalf of SPI Interactive and is protected by copyright law. Please be sure to give credit as appropriate when quoting or reprinting this release.
※ The information contained within this report was based solely on research, analysis, determination of risk, and conclusions by SPI Interactive. Please note that we cannot be held legally responsible for any activity based on this report.