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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

What advertisers think of YouTube’s brand safety problems

March 7, 2019 | By Maureen Morrison, Independent Marketing Consultant @maureenmorrison

It’s safe to say that brand safety has been one of the most pressing issues in marketing over the last two years. Advertisers have been made all too aware of the perils of digital media and what can happen if an ad runs alongside harmful content. Often, marketers may not even aware of where an ad will run, thanks to programmatic. So, they can be caught off guard when the issue spreads on social media.

The most recent brand safety concern happened in February when a YouTube user posted a video that highlights patterns of comments by pedophiles on otherwise innocuous videos. These people made comments that sexualized the kids in the videos. In other instances, these commenters shared links to child pornography.

Soon after, several advertisers including Nestle, Disney, AT&T, and Epic Games all pulled their advertising from YouTube. YouTube responded by disabling comments on most videos that include children under 13, as well as on some videos featuring older minors. It had also been reaching out to agencies and brands, reassuring them that YouTube is still a safe platform for their ads.

Brands and Boycotts

Many people feel that when brands boycott a platform, it’s just grandstanding PR. And really, boycotts haven’t materially affected YouTube’s financial performance. But these days, advertisers are generally concerned by the responses from platforms like YouTube and Facebook, with one digital ad executive recently telling Ad Age that YouTube’s promises “ring hollow, however, given this latest flare up is just one of many brand safety failures in the past two years.” They just keep happening, and so the cycle of brand boycott, only to inevitably return to the platform, continues.

Ad Age noted that YouTube offered flimsy solutions for advertisers. “YouTube has offered half-measures for brands, the executive says. For instance, YouTube is telling some brands to categorize ads as ‘alcohol’ (even if the company is not an alcohol brand), that way it tricks the automated ad system into avoiding videos with themes that appeal to children and families.”

Do Advertisers Really Care?

However, some observers think these brand safety issues have been overblown. It has been suggested that some advertisers are much more worried about consumer backlash over brand-safety incidents than they are about the incidents themselves. In the grand scheme, there are relatively few flare ups when considered in the context of how many ads are served, says media analyst and consultant Thomas Baekdal.

“What brands are worried about is to be called out about something – often outside of their control – and to face some type of backlash. Because of it… they are worried about what people might say or do on social channels,” he says. “They are also worried about activists, who in recent years have grown far more aggressive. And again, with the help of both the press and social media, they have managed to have a far bigger impact using very few resources.”

That may be true. But any time a major advertiser like AT&T, which spends a total of billions in advertising annually, pulls its advertising from one of the world’s largest platforms, reporters do need to cover it – regardless of whether or not it’s a cynical PR move on the brand’s part. (You could argue that the business press should stop covering PR stunts like this altogether, but that’s an entirely different conversation.)

All or Nothing

Baekdal also questions the move to ban comments, arguing that in some cases, comments are integral to a platform’s existence, or a content creator’s success. “One of the things we have to remember is that YouTube is fundamentally a two-way channel. It’s a platform where you are communicating rather than simply publishing. So, taking away comments entirely is a pretty drastic step that, for some channels, could destroy them,” he says. “If you have a YouTube channel where the discussion and the community are what defines the focus, removing comments would kill that channel. More to the point, it punishes the wrong people.” In fact, if some of the comments are inappropriate, disabling all comments penalizes the video’s poster.

Shelly Palmer recently wrote a column for Ad Age that’s worth reading in full. He argues that we should stop looking at YouTube to ever be totally brand safe. Palmer posits that there is no possible way to make YouTube, or any environment that relies so heavily on user-generated content (UGC), 100 percent brand safe. “Asking ‘Is YouTube safe for my brand?’ is a better question, and it is the proper lens for any serious marketing discussion.”

The Quality Question

For publishers, there’s a potential upside to all this uproar. Just after the most recent YouTube incident, Digiday noted that agencies began looking to directly buy from premium publishers on YouTube, potentially providing a revenue boost.

And let’s not forget brand safety is not a one-dimensional issue. And, for many advertisers, it isn’t limited to these noisy consumer outcries and PR flare ups. At the Digiday Media Buying Summit in November, GroupM’s Joe Barone defined it in a number of ways, including viewability and concern over bot traffic. Less flashy, but still important.

“We’ve also begun to talk about is the idea of quality. If we can get a quality environment, quality inventory from quality publishers, that are seen by real people in appropriate contextual environments, those ads sell better. Brand safety is linked directly to inventory quality and client results. Clients have become very educated on this process. They ask the same questions. They start with questions like ‘you mean to tell me my ads aren’t being seen?’ or ‘bots are clicking on my ads?’”

About the Author

Maureen Morrison is a marketing consultant working with agencies, startups, publishers and brands. She previously was a reporter and editor, having spent nearly 12 years at Ad Age covering agencies, digital media and marketers.

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