Digital Marketing & Ad Tech News

Digital Marketing & Ad Tech News

Why safety is key in the emerging metaverse

Virtual reality opens a new dimension to harassment and sexual content that marketers will have to navigate

Garett Sloane

Brands are eager to explore the metaverse, but in virtual worlds of infinite possibilities, they must navigate safety threats around every corner.

As the metaverse opens up with decentralized virtual worlds, there are risks for people and businesses, just like there would be for a brand opening a store in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It’s like Disney dropping into Times Square in 1997, positioned near seedy shops and littered streets, said Albert Thompson, managing director of digital innovation at Walton Isaacson.

In the real world, brands know the boundaries of “red light” districts, but in the metaverse, “they have no idea,” Thompson said. “Brands just don’t know. Brands have showed up in person before, they’ve been to an event or to sales in stores, but they will not actually be going into the metaverse on a daily basis, just to have fun.”

Thompson works with luxury brands like Lexus, the Japanese-based automaker with a more conservative marketing strategy. So, when it wanted to explore a metaverse campaign, it partnered with a known entity, Complex Media. The publisher hosts Complex-Land, a festival in virtual reality, which will take place in May.

It is on agencies like Walton Isaacson to do the scout work and ensure that the settings are safe in the metaverse, just like an agency would tour SoFi Stadium in California before buying the naming rights. “That’s a lot, that’s timeintensive,” Thompson said.

There are new computing worlds that could prove hard to map. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, is building Horizon Worlds, an open landscape where everyday users and brands design their own spaces. The Sandbox is a decentralized virtual reality world, based on NFT (non-fungible token) property, where brands buy land, and ultimately it will be a self-governing community. Right now, Mathieu Nouzareth, CEO of The Sandbox USA, said that the platform maintains fairly strict controls over who gets to build. There is an approval process, but “brands are free to do whatever they want in their land,” Nouzareth said.

Unruly lands

Virtual reality platforms are very much like the iPhone ecosystem or gaming consoles, where there are apps and games of every variety; there are chat apps, poker tables, theme parks, fitness and sports in virtual reality. The metaverse is like the early days of AOL or Yahoo in the 1990s, where there were chat rooms for every interest, and often inappropriate conversations, especially for children. There have been recent exposés of sexual content in VR, too, including strip clubs in apps like VRChat. The language in virtual casinos can be as raunchy as the language in a real casino.

Thompson said he sees a real problem with the metaverse at its conception, because it is based in gaming culture. Gaming worlds have earned a reputation for encouraging bullying, racist language and harassing women. With the metaverse being built on top of gaming, it will require moderation to temper the worst impulses of the virtual citizenry.

The metaverse can get weird in some corners, with raunchy NFTs and virtual adult clubs.


That doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t go into the metaverse, it just means they need to understand that they won’t have full control. It’s like when they agree to sponsor a video game setting, brands need to go into the gaming world with eyes wide open. “The rules around tolerance of brand safety will now vary,” Thompson said, “based on the dynamics of the environment and the points that exist.”

Meta, for instance, which already had trouble controlling sludge in social media, is trying to employ a more thoughtful approach as it builds the metaverse. Meta ran into problems when testing some of the spaces in VR, where women found a new dimension to cyberharassment. A beta tester of Horizon Worlds was met with virtual groping. Since then, Meta implemented invisible boundaries that act as forcefields to keep strangers at bay in VR. There also are ways to block people in Horizon Worlds.

The Sandbox’s Nouzareth said that it’s “not an easy topic.” The Sandbox has opened to brands like Gucci, Warner Music, Adidas and Ubisoft, which all bought NFT property. The brands are able to control to whom they give access to their digital venues.

“It’s a fine line between anyone having freedom of speech to talk and build the experience they want, and also building safe environments for players,” Nouzareth said.

Many of the brands are still trying to figure out how to develop their virtual land in The Sandbox: Is it a place for virtual storefronts to display digital products, or do they host events, and who gets in? The Sandbox is deeply integrated with NFTs, so that every part of the landscape and every product inside, like virtual clothing, are based on NFTs.

NFT bandits

NFTs pose risks too, according to Laura Mignott, global chief experiential officer at VMLY&R Commerce. “You haven’t seen one really good brand NFT drop that wasn’t some degree of problematic,” Mignott said.

Brands can be defrauded in the land of NFTs. Copyright infringement is an emerging issue, where forgers create fake versions of prominent projects and sell them on the same marketplaces as the real items. In February, OpenSea, one of the top NFT marketplaces, said that 80% of NFT projects were fraudulent.

Mignott said she was scammed for $300 by a fake link to a popular project. In February, there was a worthy new venture called Meta Angels, which wants to build a community for NFT “newbies.” Meta Angels has a Discord server, which is a popular platform for people to discuss NFTs. Meta Angels promotes causes like inclusion and diversity.

But Mignott was sent a fraudulent link to participate in the Meta Angels drop, which she clicked and forked over $300, before realizing it was a fake and not affiliated with Meta Angels.

When McDonald’s dropped its 2021 McRib sandwich NFT, an anonymous user initiated a transaction to McDonald’s crypto-wallet address and encrypted a racist message within the metadata field.

Alex Cavoulacos, co-founder and CEO of Meta Angels, said in a message to Ad Age that the project had trended on OpenSea, which brought out the trolls.

There were dozens of fake Discord accounts that used their profile pictures and sent links to unsuspecting members.

“We were fortunate with the Meta Angels mint that a relatively small number of individuals fell victim to scammers,” Cavoulacos said. “But with every project, there will be opportunists who spin up fake websites and impersonate project founders in order to steal money.”

It seems that in the metaverse, identity theft is getting easier, and brand safety is going to be a constant battle. But there is no way to scout every last inch of the metaverse, because there isn’t an end, Thompson said.

Brands want to “know everything that goes on in the metaverse, but that’s like asking, ‘Do you want me to take you to outer space?’” Thompson said.

“You haven’t seen one really good brand NFT drop that wasn’t some degree of problematic.”

Laura Mignott, VMLY&R