In the wake of recent revelations about online advertising inadvertently funding extremism, travel businesses ought to consider their digital marketing strategy and advertising supply chain management very carefully.

Since The Times reported on its investigation into programmatic advertising and online media space purchasing on 9 February 2017, several large businesses have announced that they would suspend online advertising in the UK. This notably included Sandals Resorts who discovered that its advertising banner appeared on the same page as a video praising the East African jihadist group, al-Shabaab. These controversial revelations have sparked fierce debate about who is to blame for such failures. Many point the finger at growing dominance of ‘programmatic advertising’, a process by which software has largely automated the way in which online space is bought by media agencies on behalf of companies wishing to advertise their offerings. The software tracks online behaviour e.g. through cookies, in order to match a wealth of data to consumers and target them accordingly. Others blame unscrupulous agencies who eye big profits in an online environment that is difficult to police due to the split-second transaction times and the internet’s constant state of flux. In equal measure, large platforms who host material, such as Facebook and Google, have also come under pressure for systems that are used to monitor extremist content – e.g. blacklists and keyword triggers – not being fit for purpose. For example, some YouTube video owners generate advertising revenues from increased views to their unsavoury content, despite Google’s zero tolerance policy for website content that incites violence or hatred.

Sandals Resorts are not alone in taking these steps whilst rethinking their digital marketing strategy. Brand protection has never been more important in the social media age, with airlines, tour operators and other travel businesses fully embracing technology to reach wide audiences. Inadvertently funding terrorism will raise all sorts of reputational, ethical and possibly corporate governance issues, to which businesses can no longer afford to turn a blind eye and blame devious advertising agencies or hapless ISPs. There should be greater focus on managing the advertising supply chain properly, both in terms of better due diligence, implementing and managing more robust technological processes to mitigate against such damaging practices and sufficient contractual safeguards, including fulsome indemnity protection and insurance clauses, to incentivise best practice.

The holiday industry is highly competitive and reaching out to a large target audience of holidaymakers is critical. However, it should not be at the risk of diminishing a hard-earned reputation.