How brands can stop defunding diverse content and its creators

How brands can stop defunding diverse content and its creators

Brands are doing themselves, as well as diverse communities, a disservice by relying on legacy safety tools.


At this year’s Cannes Lions, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) launched its Global DEI Charter for Change, serving as another much-needed reminder for the advertising industry to tackle its inequalities. Meanwhile, TikTok launched a tool to connect brands with a more diverse range of content creators for promotions, advertisements and endorsements.

While it’s heartening to see positive moves throughout the digital landscape, diverse content and creators are still underserved by the advertising industry. Recent research found that keyword blocklists exclude diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) content 2.7 times more than general content – despite 90% of this content being labelled no risk by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM). The continued use of outdated brand suitability tools such as blocklists not only excludes diverse creators but their audiences as well.

With the development of new technology and increasing awareness of DEI initiatives, there’s no excuse for discrimination, no matter how unintentional. So, how can brands transcend blunt legacy tools to reach diverse audiences and what steps are already being taken to improve inclusivity in the industry?

Legacy brand suitability tools breed unconscious bias

Brand suitability is a crucial consideration for any advertiser, especially within the programmatic ecosystem. With multiple bidders vying for the same inventory it can be difficult to pinpoint an ad’s exact placement. Creative appearing on irrelevant sites means ads won’t reach their intended audiences, and brands’ reputations are also at stake if their ads are seen to be funding content, such as disinformation around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Traditionally, keyword blocklists have been used to mitigate these risks, relying on broad terms to comb through web pages; in reality, they often dismiss perfectly viable inventory in the process, especially on video and user-generated content heavy platforms. Content from LGBTQ+ publications is often blocked for including words such as “lesbian” or “transgender”, while Vice Media Group highlighted the dismissal of benign web pages discussing Black Lives Matter due to phrases  such as “black people”.

Sometimes, semantics can mistakenly flag content as unsafe and subsequently exclude diverse voices. According to research, keyword blocklists labelled the word “explosive” as high risk, meaning LGBTQ+ content such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race was blocked for referring to “explosive arguments”.

Video content is particularly difficult to vet as it is highly nuanced, and can be fairly spontaneous when it’s created by influencers or social media users. However, despite the complex and ever-evolving nature of video, a study from Forrester found 44% of US and UK marketing decision-makers use video keyword blocking and 36% still rely on insufficient exclusion lists. These tools are rarely updated to reflect the current climate, making them outdated and inaccurate.

As a result, minority-owned media and influencers of different gender identities, sexual orientations and ethnicities are missing out on valuable ad dollars as their content is wrongly blocked by blunt legacy, text-based tools. Diverse voices and stories are therefore repressed and creators are less able to reach their audiences.

Total inclusivity requires a nuanced approach

Inclusivity in all stages of the marketing strategy, including media buying, is not just the right thing to do; it’s also essential for building trust with consumers. According to Amazon Ads research, 68% of consumers believe it’s important that the brands they buy from take action to promote DEI, while a US Horowitz Research study found that respondents are interested in content that will encourage greater cultural understanding.

It’s therefore in advertisers’ best interests to take a more nuanced approach to brand suitability and ensure campaigns are inclusive of diverse creators and voices. This requires sophisticated AI-enabled technology, whereby machine learning algorithms continuously scan content to decipher the meaning and sentiment of content.

When human cognition is used to verify and strengthen AI algorithms, real-time interpretation of information and its context can be conducted accurately, at scale, including analysis of computer vision, audio transcripts, text translation, thumbnails and video features. These tools are constantly ingesting and learning from data to optimise their classifications, making them highly accurate in contrast to stagnant keyword blocklists.

Paving the way to increased representation

It can be difficult to maintain an inclusive brand suitability strategy without shared terminology with which to define harmful content. The Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) is making strides in this area, creating universal standards for brand suitability, leading independent verification, and pushing for shared accountability across the industry. It’s also working to improve existing industry-wide suitability tools.

Another DE&I trailblazer is media agency, Brand Advance, which helps advertisers reach diverse audiences in an authentic way, and ensures ads are representative of the communities they’re targeting. Ads must have a 70% approval rating against a focus group before they can launch. The agency’s founder, Chris Kenna, has spoken out about the damaging impact of blocklisting terms such as “gay” and “black”, helping to raise awareness of the unconscious biases in all areas of the advertising industry.

As TikTok’s Branded Mission promotes increased collaboration between advertisers and diverse creators, it seems the industry is gradually moving in the right direction. For example, shoe and clothing brand Havaianas worked with creators of different gender identities, sexual orientations and races for its Facebook and Instagram video campaigns to increase representation, leading to a 57% higher conversion rate. With more sophisticated suitability tools in place, brands can increasingly endorse diverse content across the board.


The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the entire advertising ecosystem is undeniable. Now is the time for brands to take action rather than just paying lip service to the industry’s inequalities. Brands are doing themselves as well as diverse communities a disservice by relying on legacy safety tools; they’re limiting reach and securing inventory that is not representative of society as a whole. With the right technology, brands are equipped to enact positive change by funding minority-owned media and diverse creators and helping them enrich society with a wider range of voices.

Emma Lacey is SVP EMEA of data and technology platform Zefr.

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