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Experts Say TikTok Has Made Genuine Progress on Brand Safety

25 October, 2021 

In 2020, TikTok transitioned from a rising star in the media world to something of a dominant force. In December 2019, the company said that it had 508 million users. By the summer of 2020, TikTok reported that the number had risen to over one billion.

With this newfound superstardom came heavy scrutiny – not least from then-US President Donald Trump who attempted to ban the app, citing national security risks.

Marketers also maintained a level of scepticism. TikTok’s impressive engagement figures have made it impossible to ignore. But the lack of initial familiarity with TikTok did cause some wariness with marketers initially, says Stevan Randjelovic, director of brand safety and digital risk EMEA at GroupM.

“TikTok was perceived with lots of caution simply because it was a new app, and because it was perceived to be attracting a young audience,” he said.

TikTok’s audience certainly does skew young. According to figures from AppApe, a mobile app analytics company, 25 percent of US TikTok users in March 2021 were aged 10-19.

While this represents an opportunity to engage a notoriously hard-to-reach audience, it also ramps up risk. No brand wants to find themselves at the centre of a scandal around harmful content being shown to minors.

But those VideoWeek spoke with said the platform has actually made strong progress in combating brand safety concerns, helping attract more ad spend on TikTok.

Rapid steps to improve brand safety

GroupM’s Randjelovic says that TikTok’s huge popularity meant marketers were already keen to spend on the platform, and just wanted to see the evidence that TikTok took brand risk seriously.

“TikTok’s user base exploded, so it was also a bit difficult for advertisers to say ‘we’re not going to work with them’,” he said, “And at the same time, TikTok has developed and put in place quite a lot of changes, for example, the level of their integration with third parties, such as IAS, DoubleVerify, and OpenSlate etc. How fast they are making these changes is something that, quite honestly, ought to be praised.”

Perhaps in part due to negative press around the app, Stevan Randjelovic noted that TikTok has made “significant strides” in improving brand safety on the platform. IPG Mediabrands named TikTok as the “most improved” platform from H1 2020 in its H2 2020 Media Responsibility Index.

We’ve still this year seen negative headlines relating to child safety – a potential cause for concern for brands on the platform. But Andy Phippen, professor of children and technology at Plymouth University, says that the platform is actually fairly proactive on the issue.

“From my experience working with stakeholders in the safeguarding area, it’s pretty clear that TikTok are responsive and actually pretty conservative in their community standards. The challenge they have, which is the challenge most of the platforms have, is the willingness, or even awareness, of end-users, to use the tools they provide to block and report abusive accounts,” Phippen said.

“There is always more they can do, but they are doing some good work,” he added. “Of course, as the new kid on the block, there will be some that look to show that sometimes harms occur on the platform, but I guess a headline of ‘Kids use platform to have fun’ wouldn’t get many clicks.”

Tailoring ads for a younger audience

Child safety isn’t just about making sure dangerous content isn’t shown to minors. It’s also important to make sure the ad experience is tailored for a younger audience too, given that children and teenagers make up such a significant proportion of TikTok’s user base.

One example is the UK’s rules on advertising foods which are high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). These laws require that HFSS foods don’t appear in media directed at under-16s.

“Since TikTok is perceived to have a sizable proportion of teen users, that is something they really have to consider on the platform,” said Randjelovic.

Brands may choose to work directly with the platform, to make sure they stay on the right side of the law. Fast-food chain KFC, for example, runs ads on TikTok, but is careful to make sure its ads aren’t shown to younger users.

“We’re continuing to work closely with TikTok to ensure the wide range of policies and processes which rigorously target specific ads to 18+ audiences are implemented anywhere KFC appears,” a KFC spokesperson told VideoWeek.

HFSS brands aren’t the only ones who need to remain careful around targeting on TikTok. And avoiding inappropriate ads being shown to younger audiences can be particularly difficult to manage when it comes to using influencers – a popular tactic on TikTok, and one which TikTok directly facilitates.

“When you launch an ad in-feed, you can target by age and interest. Whereas with influencers, you are basically targeting their audience. So where there are compliance issues, brands need to be aware of who the influencers’ audience is,” said Randjelovic.

But these risks aren’t unique to TikTok. Working with the platform isn’t risk-free, but that’s something of an inevitability with social platforms, especially those which are reliant on user-generated content.


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