An explosive investigation in The Times of London found advertising from reputable brands like Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and the NGO Marie Curie running on YouTube videos promoting extremism and pornographic content. So, by extension, those companies were helping to fund pro-Nazi, ISIS and other terrorist propaganda.
Despite YouTube’s investment in software to weed out such content, its continued existence — coupled with the advertising that appears on it — shines a harsh light on advertising’s poor quality control. And News Corp.’s CEO Robert Thomson released an incisive statement in reaction, saying that the industry’s actions are undermining its stated priorities, and vouching to bring its advertising under its own authority.
It’s clear that attaining actual solutions to this problem requires much more soul-searching within the entire industry, and a change in current operations.
A Looming Problem
In many ways, the recent report in The Times is not that surprising. Publishers and advertisers have found themselves in unwanted territory on the internet before, as we previously wrote in DCN. The attention fake news garnered at the end of last year was a game-changer in that regard, as it spotlighted the money to be made from hyper-partisan sites with misinformation. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft’s pledge last December to share information, to better eliminate extremist content, was therefore a lauded effort.
But even though Google says it has a “zero tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred,” blacklisting is apparently not enough. And ad quality has long been an issue before “fake news” became the term du jour in media and marketing circles. The pervasiveness of fraud and viewability issues has demanded better standards for metrics, and better advertising so that consumers don’t just reach for the ad blocker. Google doubled-down by removing 1.7 billion ads last year that defied its policies — which was more than twice the number of ads it took down in 2015.
But with Facebook and Google together controlling well over half of the digital ad market, that leaves smaller players in a desperate scramble for the scraps, undermining concerns about integrity.
Who’s to Blame?
Which brings us to the question: Is programmatic advertising to blame, or is it a scapegoat for other problems the industry can’t yet address? Marie Curie, for instance, claims it was absolutely unaware its ads were appearing alongside the content of a pro-Nazi group. Sandals Resorts, which had its advertising appear next to an Al-Shabaab video, meanwhile, blamed Google’s mishandling, stating the video hadn’t been categorized as “sensitive.”
The advertisers were quick to express their deep concern and withdraw their advertisements, but the “hands off, we didn’t realize it” response is not the kind of reaction that engenders trust. And that is the bigger concern here. News Corp’s Chief Executive Robert Thomson called this out in a statement. Some of his choice lines deserve highlighting:
“We are in an era in which integrity is priceless, yet digital distributors have long been a platform for the fake, the faux and the fallacious, highlighting an issue which we have long stressed – that they have eroded the integrity of content by undermining its provenance.”
“Ad agencies and their programmatic networks are also at fault because they have sometimes artificially aggregated audiences, and these are then plied with content of dubious provenance – the agencies win, the fabricators of the fake win, and advertisers and society both lose. Affinity and integrity are core elements of a sustainable relationship between advertiser and consumer, and yet affinity and integrity are far too often missing in the modern marketplace.”
If the demand for money and efficiency is eroding the integrity of content — not to mention that of brands and platforms — everyone involved must collaborate to gain that trust back. And that means investing the time, energy and resources in some not so quick-and-easy moves.
One potential solution that puts the advertising industry back into the hands of advertisers is to rely less on programmatic and more on in-house ad networks. News Corp, for instance, is testing its own digital ad network to ensure a “high quality audience for advertisers.” The Scandinavian publisher Schibsted also has its own in-house ad network, and focusing on that has helped decrease ad-page load times while doubling viewability from 40 to 80 percent. Vox too has its own in-house ad platform. And alongside BuzzFeed, Mic and other publishers, it’s expressed an aversion to programmatic. Digital Content Next recently announced the formation of TrustX, a cooperative digital advertising marketplace made up of many DCN member companies, including NewsCorp and Vox.
The reality is that individual ad networks are not yet mainstream by any means. Most advertisers are not big enough or rich enough to opt out of automated advertising, and smaller publishers don’t have the size to build their own network.
What is possible, though, is a more consistent, industry-wide approach to addressing these issues and testing solutions. That means worrying less about the bottom line — at least for now — and taking collective responsibility for this problem. And more human oversight over the entire industry — even over programmatic advertising — is the first big step. Just as Facebook has acknowledged it can’t just rely on an algorithm to stamp out fake news on its platform, marketers know that it can’t rely on automation alone. Doing so only stands to create more problems for an industry already on the edges of consumer trust.