April 11, 2017
AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, and many other major U.S. brands and advertisers are pulling hundreds of millions of dollars in business from Google and its video service YouTube. These brands were notified that their ads appeared alongside offensive or extremist content – such as videos by white supremacists or hate videos. It appeared as though these brands were inadvertently supporting these videos.
“We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate,” AT&T said in an emailed statement. “Until Google can ensure this won’t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google’s non-search platforms.”
After the boycott started in the U.K., Google pledged to give advertisers more control over where their ads appeared, as well as pull their online ads from controversial content. It appears this wasn’t enough to reassure advertisers. More than 250 organizations have stopped advertising on YouTube in the U.K., and the boycott is only broadening. Major brands have continued to pull their advertising, including PepsiCo, Walmart, and Starbucks. Analysts predict this boycott will cost Google nearly $750 million.
This all comes after one of YouTube’s most popular personalities, PewDiePie, a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg, was found using Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic comedy in his videos. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation into Kjellberg’s YouTube channel found a total of nine videos posted since August 2016 that featured Nazi imagery or anti-Semitic humor. In a February 10th video, Kjellberg compares himself to Hitler, gives a Nazi salute, and shows a series of clips of Nazi imagery, including a crowd of Nazis saluting, Nazi soldiers marching, and footage of Hitler Youth. As a result of this investigation, Kjellberg lost two major partnerships with the Disney-owned Maker Studios, and YouTube itself canceled the second season of his reality show.
Just recently, advertisers and brands began pulling their ads and boycotting the O’Reilly Factor news television program. This is in response to sexual harassment allegations involving host Bill O’Reilly. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and dozens of other companies have all suspended advertising on the program. While different in many ways compared to the YouTube debacle, it does share one common theme among advertisers… “protect our brand!”
The white nationalist website Breitbart.com also had a boycott against their website that led more than 1,000 companies to stop advertising on their website. So far, nearly 820 companies have blocked their ads from appearing on Breitbart. However, Amazon and AT&T ads continue to run on the website and have faced heavy criticism for doing so.
While some companies refuse to drop their ads from Breitbart, others might not even know they’re serving ads on their website. That’s where the group Sleeping Giants steps in. They’re a group of anonymous organizers that are trying to get companies to stop advertising on Breitbart. The first company they flagged was SoFi, a finance company that helps college graduates find better rates on student loans. Sleeping Giants took a screenshot of the ad and tweeted it to SoFi’s CEO, Mike Cagney. Within 30 minutes he responded to the group and was surprised their ads had shown up on Breitbart’s website. He was completely unaware of their placement.
Workable, a start-up that sells recruiting software and champions diversity, was flagged by the group for having a banner ad on Breitbart above the headline, “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews.” They too, were completely unaware of this ad placement.
Brands often don’t know where their online ads are being placed. Programmatic ad buying is computerized, with machines placing the ads, all with very little human oversight. Google depends mostly on automated programs to place ads in YouTube videos because the job is too much for humans to handle on their own, as about 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
How can advertisers be assured that their ads are placed in appropriate places? How can they assure brand safety? The bottom line is, companies and advertisers don’t want their content or brand associated with people or groups that could bring them any negative attention. Partners who can ensure brand safety, in the end, are the ones who will win.
While some of these advertisers knew where their content was running and which content they were associating with, most did not. How can you be assured that your advertisements won’t appear on certain websites and pages?
At Giant Media, we offer a three-layer brand safety net which virtually guarantees 100% brand safety. How can we do this? First, Giant Media only works with premium publishers on the open web. Because they are “premium” sites and not “user-generated” sites like YouTube, we can feel fairly comfortable our publishers will not be running any inappropriate content next to our brand advertisers. Just in case, we always allow our advertisers to white list or black list sites from our customized site list before a campaign even runs. Secondly, we employ an “always-on” integration with MOAT, a 3rd party ad placement verification service, and can also work with other services such as Double Verify and Integral Ad Science.
Our third level of brand safety is sentiment analysis which is powered by IBM Watson. In short, Watson is built on artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing. It indexes and analyzes potential ad placements across our network, and can determine the exact sentiment of the content on the page. In the case of negative sentiment, we will not make that ad placement. A good example is a recent agency meeting we had where their client, a popular cottage cheese brand, ran native video ads with a Giant competitor and the ads showed up in the middle of articles on the web about “cottage cheese thighs”. While not as extreme as the brand safety challenges YouTube is having, this was certainly not a welcomed outcome by the dairy brand. Watson understands linguistic distinctions like this and will place, or not place, ads accordingly.
In summary, the one good thing we can all agree on that has come out of the YouTube brand safety challenges is to never take your brand equity for granted. It only takes a couple missteps to repeal years worth of positive brand equity earned by doing the right things. Make sure your vendors can deliver on their brand promise so you can deliver on yours.