How did X get TAG-certified for brand safety under Musk’s leadership?

The “Good Housekeeping seal of approval for digital advertising” has some explaining to do.

On August 18, we learned that Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) had quietly renewed X’s Brand Safety Certified seal — and immediately filed a formal complaint.

Why? Because this seal tells advertisers that a platform meets a standard that ensures their ads won’t run alongside toxic content. More critically, TAG’s stamp of approval opens the door to millions of dollars worth of ad spend from advertisers and agencies.

Elon Musk has turned Twitter into an open playground for brand unsafe content since his October 2022 takeover. Advertisers like Adobe, Disney, and Microsoft have found themselves not only at risk of being alongside horrific content but funding it as well.

It's very much the opposite of what's happening on X right now.

So how did TAG approve X to begin with — and why haven’t they revoked its certification yet?

We filed a formal complaint with TAG on August 19, 2023

What is TAG? An industry-wide grift

In theory, TAG fights crime and fraud in advertising. But wait till you see what they really do.

The organization was formed in 2015 by a handful of advertising industry groups — including the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) — to address rampant ad fraud that was making advertisers skittish about spending on digital.

TAG was tasked to be an independent body tasked with creating trust and transparency in the marketplace. The organization would be responsible for setting common standards and certification programs in ad fraud, malware and piracy to help advertisers discern trustworthy vendors from the rest.

The heads of the above industry bodies tapped Mike Zaneis, following his nearly decade-long career representing the interests of the adtech industry as VP and General Counsel at IAB.

"We're like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for digital advertising,” said Zaneis, who describes himself as a “crimefighter” on his X bio.

Interesting analogy. Good Housekeeping employs a team of engineers and scientists to carefully test each product before awarding it a seal. Their seal is backed by a limited warranty for defective products, offering either a refund up to $2,000, a repair, or replacement.

Does TAG do anything like that?

TAG is corrupt by design

It does not. Unlike Good Housekeeping, TAG doesn't have a testing lab. They don't have engineers to perform audits or evaluate platforms requesting certification. They don't serve their customers — the advertisers — at all.

Source: tagtoday.net

Rather, TAG is designed from the bottom up to serve the business interests of the platforms willing to invest in their coveted "brand safety certified" seals. The organization largely funds its operations through hefty certification fees.

According to a 2017 pricing document reviewed by Check My Ads, those start at $10,000 annually for an individual certification. For $20,000 annually you can get a package deal that includes three certifications and "unlimited working group participation." And for $65,000 per year you get everything in the previous package, plus you get to sit on the TAG Leadership Council.

These certification programs are also "self-certification." That is, platforms complete an application saying they’re up to standard and TAG gives them its rubber stamp of approval after the check clears. TAG then adds the company’s name to the TAG Member Registry.

Source: tagtoday.net

The Member Registry is notably sparse. It doesn’t provide any documentation, such as a record of the application or review. It may tell you that a platform was audited by a third-party independent evaluation, but won't tell you who. Finally, you won't see a single date telling you when the platform was audited or awarded a seal.

If a company loses its certification, TAG will have it mysteriously disappear from the Member Registry without providing any details, like when or why.

Additionally, a TAG certification is backed by absolutely nothing. They provide no warranties or assistance to advertisers who may have been duped by TAG-certified vendors.

TAG’s sketchiness is an open secret among industry insiders

Sure, Jan.

Everyone in the industry knows TAG and its CEO Mike Zaneis are slippery.

In 2017, one media auditor, whose job it is to make sure companies stick to industry guidelines, confirmed to Digiday that TAG acts as a helpful cover to bad actors.

“I’ve gone into a company that’s supposed to audit themselves, and they’re in remediation right now,” the auditor said. “They were misleading the marketplace that they were compliant when they were not. One of the requirements was to do an audit on a quarterly basis, and they didn’t do the audits.”

Asked if this was just a one-off, the auditor said, “if you went into self-certified companies, you’d find problems. Every one of them.”

One Redditor wrote that TAG requirements just require you “to send them basic business docs to show you ran an actual business (or fake it good enough).”

Source: Reddit

TAG has been telling on itself for years, even producing wildly unbelievable reports that claim they've reduced digital fraud by “600%” and that fraud among TAG-certified companies is now “under 1%.” (That’s verifiably impossible.)

But the organization has remained largely successful because it’s the only certification the industry has. There are simply no other options. Plus, they provide a unspoken but critical service: covering everyone's ass.

Everyone in the industry benefits from TAG's pay-to-play certification scheme.

TAG allows ad industry leaders from IAB, ANA and the 4A's to appear proactive in building a solution to rampant crime and fraud in the industry. It enables agencies to recommend a list of "certified" platforms to their clients. It allows platforms to buy their way onto that list.

Last but not least, it allows Zaneis to collect a $750,000/year salary for quietly faciliating the service. And the service is a critical one: TAG keeps the money flowing from advertisers, many of whom will only work with a platform if it's TAG certified.

TAG made a big f*cking mistake with X

Faced with no pushback and a wide open market, TAG expanded into brand safety in 2020. But brand safety isn't like fraud. We can see if a platform is brand safe with our own eyes.

When TAG renewed X's brand safety certification in March 2023, Musk was already reinstating the accounts of known hate and conspiracy spreaders, rolling back its hateful content policy, and liquidating entire content moderation teams.

Since then, the platform has continued to deteriorate.

Ads are definitely running next to hate speech. (Source: Alejandra Caraballo)
Source: Media Matters

All of that undeniably violates TAG’s certification requirements, which include:

  1. No ads can appear adjacent to the online ad industry's “dirty dozen” categories, which include violence, porn, guns, and human right violations. (That's very much happening.)
  2. Having a designated Brand Safety Officer. (X’s Head of Brand Safety just left about a week ago.)
  3. Conduct internal audits and quarterly testing. (Now who would be doing that?)
Industry folks are become more vocal against TAG. (Source: LinkedIn)

TAG will let X stay “brand certified” for the next 12 months — even with the N@zi stuff

Two days after we filed our complaint, TAG's VP of Compliance Todd Miller confirmed to Check My Ads over email that they were initiating a investigation into X's certification.

So what happens next?

For the answer, we turn to TAG's tortuous Due Process for Allegations of Non-Compliance and Appeal documentation.

If we're reading this correctly, X will get to keep its brand safety certification for the next 12 months as TAG kicks off a review process designed to stall infinitely while X scrambles to figure something out.

Sometime over the coming weeks or months, TAG will send its findings, known as “Non-Compliance Allegations” over to X’s executive team. They will give X a remediation plan, and three chances to fix their issues over the next 12 months.

During this time, X will be able to continue getting away with brand safety violations while retaining their brand safety certification. At the 12-month mark, TAG will finally consider revoking the certification.

X also has the option to fight the allegations. In this case, they will be able to state their case in front of a 3-person committee made up of TAG staff, whose salaries are drawn from X’s certification fees.

TAG's Mike Zaneis has stopped responding to our emails

The best part about the Trustworthy Accountability Group is that they don’t share the results of their review nor provide documentation that a review ever took place.

We know, because we’ve filed a complaint with them before — against a platform called MGID for its monetization partnership with Steve Bannon.

Mike Zaneis would not tell us the results of a TAG investigation.

Zaneis declined to make the details of their so-called investigation available to us, and MGID currently still retains its Brand Safety Certified seal.

TAG has enjoyed a no-accountability business since the beginning — mostly because no one quite understands what they do. But with X, they’ve flown a little too close to the sun. We all know that X should have never received that certification, and that any review process should result in an immediate termination.

We are monitoring this situation closely. We’ve also joined forces with 60+ advocacy groups as part of the #StopToxicTwitter coalition and we will see this through.

Hugs,

Nandini and Claire


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