YouTube is emerging from its recent brand-safety crisis after taking steps to address advertisers’ concerns, but the issues of responsibility and brand safety will continue to have widespread impact on digital advertising.
YouTube and its parent company Google have come under fire for not doing more to combat hate-filled content and for not protecting brands whose ads appeared on objectionable videos and websites.
The problem came to a head when The Times of London reported that ads by L’Oréal, The Guardian, Nissan and government entities including the Royal Navy popped up on YouTube videos by white supremacists and Islamic extremists.
AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, JPMorgan Chase and other brands suspended advertising on the video platform. And Google, along with Facebook and Twitter, received heavy criticism from Parliament’s home affairs select committee.
“The biggest and richest social media companies are shamefully far from taking sufficient action to tackle illegal and dangerous content,” the committee reported. “Given their immense size, resources and global reach, it is completely irresponsible of them to fail to abide by the law.”
YouTube’s handling of its crisis seems to have staved off significant impact to its bottom line, though the initial response was criticized for a lack of detail. Google apologized, admitted that it could and would do better, but some brands weren’t convinced.
Companies like Johnson & Johnson returned to YouTube only after changes that included third-party verification of ad quality standards and expanded use of artificial intelligence to identify objectionable content.
YouTube also imposed a minimum of 10,000 views for any channel receiving ads and hired more people to review content. Just this week, Google announced four ways it will fight terrorism online.
But the debate about brand safety continues and is likely to change digital advertising. Here are four takeaways for brands in this evolving landscape:
Brand Safety: Why It’s Important
While the number of brands whose ads appeared on objectionable content is relatively low, the crisis has resulted in the proliferation of the term, “brand safety,” and for good reason.
Brands have a vested interest in ensuring that their ads don’t appear next to content that conflicts with their values. There’s debate on whether the brands whose ads appeared on objectionable content suffered actual damage, but what brand wants to take the risk?
Consumers’ understanding of the way digital advertising works varies, but one recent poll found that 36 percent of respondents viewed ads on offensive YouTube content as an endorsement of that content.
More importantly, brands want to ensure that their ads don’t create revenue for hate-filled extremists, who are paid based on ad views. The Guardian reported that extremists in the U.K. had made $318,000 from YouTube ads for household brands and government departments.
Consumers today have heightened awareness of corporate social responsibility and demand that corporations use their resources to contribute to the greater good. Not funding hate groups is the right thing to do from a human perspective and a branding perspective.
Calls For More Control
Even as brands return to YouTube, others remain cautious. JPMorgan Chase hasn’t resumed advertising on the video platform. CMO Kristin Lemkau, quoted in Adweek, said YouTube’s decision to impose a minimum of 10,000 views for channels receiving ads doesn’t go far enough.
“We would have to make a judgment about every channel and every creator, and I’m willing to pay a premium for that,” she said. “I’m not sure 10,000 lifetime views is high enough. The creators should earn the right to be monetized.”
Advertisers like Chase are coalescing to demand more control, and it’s making a difference.
A ‘Whitelist’ Strategy
Lemkau and Chase are leading the way in advertisers calling for a “whitelist” strategy. Instead of purchasing advertising that extends to the far reaches of the web, they want more review of the sites on which their ads are served.
After finding out that its ads appeared on a fake news site, Chase made a bold move to reduce the number of sites where it advertises from roughly 400,000 to 5,000.
A Chase spokesman told AdAge that while the experiment is still early, it hasn’t seen a decrease in ad performance and that even if the company did, it would still pursue a whitelist strategy because “it’s the right thing to do.”
If other large advertisers follow suit, the market for digital advertising would change drastically.
Whose Responsible For Brand Safety?
While most of the outrage has been directed toward Google, advertising executives say brands also have a role to play in brand-safe advertising.
Advertising on platforms such like Facebook and YouTube is inexpensive. Many brands have come to rely on that cost savings without carefully considering whether user-generated content can ever truly be “safe.” Brands like Chase are re-examining their strategies and determining that the largest audience isn’t perhaps the best audience.
It will be interesting to watch as these issues continue to shape branding and digital advertising. For now, brands are flexing their muscle to hold YouTube and Google accountable.
Karen B. Moore is founder and CEO of Moore Communications Group and author of “Behind the Red Door: Unlock Your Advocacy Influence and Success.”