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Big Brand Pullouts on YouTube – What effect did they really have?5 min read

5 min read

The Times says “Big brands fund terror through online adverts” while a top exec at Google states “It’s a very, very small problem.” When investigations into ad placements across the Google and YouTube network found major brands’ content appearing in videos promoting extremist views and hate speeches earlier last month, the fallout was inevitable.

It’s reported that more than 250 brands so far have frozen campaigns with Google – a move worth hundreds of millions of dollars according to The Times. In the UK alone 20 of the biggest advertisers suspending adverts include McDonald’s, L’Oréal and Sainsbury’s.

“We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate… Until Google can ensure this won’t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google’s non-search platforms.” AT&T spokesman

Following reports in both The Times and The Wall Street Journal, Google was quick to react, offering a public apology and pledging to give brands more control over where their ads appear.

But just what impact might this have on the platform and has irreparable damage already been done?


As the industry reacted the question on most advertisers’ lips was “How did could this happen?”

It would be simple to blame genuine human error for the placements but in all likelihood, it was the almost complete lack of human intervention which was at fault. Programmatic advertising – using algorithms to optimize media buying –  despite significant advances, typically still lacks the human intelligence required to sort safe placements from more ambiguous ones.  

While advertising on Google’s ad exchange ensures mass reach and an entirely unique video offering, this programmatic approach means complacent advertisers just aren’t aware of the placements they’re purchasing – and aren’t prepared to ask.

The truth is that ad spend is not allocated at random, and advertisers are able to select exactly where they do or don’t want to promote their content.

For all advertisers on YouTube there are already brand safety controls in place, allowing them to pick exactly what types of video they buy space against based on keywords and to receive guidance on advertiser-friendly content.

The size of the network means brands benefit from being able to buy ad space in as many placements as possible with no unnecessary limitations. However, this lulls some marketers into a false sense of security, and choosing the most open options to earn reach means fewer restrictions on where your content ends up.

The incident has certainly brought into question whose responsibility auditing channels is; both brands and agencies have come under fire for not ensuring their banners and pre-roll adverts only appear on entirely safe videos.

It’s a task easier said than done, however. Over 400 hours of video content is uploaded every minute on YouTube – as a platform its foundation is in user-generated content and the sheer volume makes moderating each piece difficult.  To date, policing is a blend of user flagging, real world moderation and detection through their algorithm but advertisers are calling out for better tools.  

What impact has this really had on YouTube?

At this early stage it’s difficult to say exactly, but perhaps one of the more pressing impacts will come in the form of media discounts – something a number of brands are already said to be pursuing with the network which, along with Facebook, collected nearly 47% of all digital ad dollars spent worldwide last year.  There’s another debate for using the boycott as leverage for more transparent, independently-verified data and better advertising control.

Despite the initial exodus, predictions have been mixed and overall ad spend on YouTube to the end of March has remained fairly stable according to data released. While R B C Capital Markets hasn’t changed its revenue forecasts for Google, Nomura Instinet estimates a fallout of nearly $750 million.

In fact, at this stage the greatest impact can be seen in the new expectations of advertisers and the industry with regards to ad placement and moderation.  As a direct result of the scandal, ISBA has already called on Google to immediately withdraw from sale any ad inventory that cannot be guaranteed safe.

They have also suggested the platform reviews their current ad placement practice urgently.  While previously ads were placed against content too new to be ‘classified’ or marked as safe, the industry body is urging Google to place advertising only with content that is old enough to have been marked 100% safe.

Of course it’s not as simple as that; reviewing the entire digital landscape effectively before placing any branded ad doesn’t work in an agile marketplace. It’s here where Google will need to work harder to reassure advertisers.

“They need to get better at the management of what is brand-safe and what isn’t” – Gabe Winslow, Ansira

Google’s Chief Business Officer Philipp Schindler has confirmed they have “already begun ramping up changes” in three key areas: ad policies, enforcement of these policies and new controls for advertisers.

As an industry there is deep appreciation of the difficulty in moderating the sheer volume of content across Google and its third party inventory, the boycott will now have significant impact on the responsibility of agencies and advertisers with regards to auditing where their content is due to be placed.

A statement from Google has confirmed that they’re already seeing brands reactivate their campaigns, though confidentiality dictates they can’t reveal who; what the lasting damage might be remains to be seen. For the brands and publishers involved, the next logical step is to start taking power back from the platforms and putting more onus on their internal accountability.