Brand Safety: Next to Nothing Inappropriate
Ensuring brands get next to nothing inappropriate is a constant headache. With a slew of advertisers objecting to their ads being served up next to racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content, YouTube faces its biggest challenge yet, reports Economic Times. The YouTube Brandcast was supposed to be a victory lap for the video sharing site. And it mostly was, with YouTube getting unstinting praise, courtesy speakers from HUL and Maruti. But souring the celebratory vibe somewhat was an issue that Rajan Anandan, vice president, Google India and South Asia, felt compelled to address. “Brand safety is extremely critical,“ he said highlighting a major source of bad press for Google and YouTube over the last week. “Even one ad impression on inappropriate content is a major issue for brands.“
YouTube's troubles began in the UK when a report in The Times highlighted that advertising for leading brands had appeared next to highly controversial content - for instance, Volkswagen on the official YouTube channel of a radical Islamist accused of promoting terrorism and Toyota next to a notoriously homophobic preacher. One agency group, Havas, and, according to a report in The Times, a laundry list of advertisers including the BBC, Tesco, L'Oreal and McDonald's, had withdrawn advertising on the site from the UK market. The numbers had swelled to include Verizon, AT and T and Johnson and Johnson, at the time of going to print. Some media estimates put the number of brands opting out as high as 250. A statement on the company's website said “Johnson and Johnson has decided to pause all YouTube digital advertising globally to ensure our product advertising does not appear on channels that promote offensive content.“
The issue has become serious enough for some leading media agencies in India to reach out to key clients. While the message they sent does not recommend dropping YouTube, it does highlight the concerns generated. So, why now and what next? Why Now? “People are not asking simple questions“. When print and TV were the only options, it was easier to decide what was and wasn't kosher. Filters were in place: clients who didn't want to advertise to children, wouldn't find their ads on a kid's channel. But according to Vikram Sakhuja, partner and group CEO Madison Media, “The opaqueness and lack of knowledge on digital channels makes this a lot tougher. For instance, if my brand is all about happiness, and it shows up on a site with `happy endings', is it Google's fault or the fault of the person who wanted the keyword without thinking things through?“ “When you were spending 5%, who cared? But when it's 32% you go `oh shit something needs to change.'“
There are several hilarious examples of ads appearing against a backdrop of inappropriate content. However shift the venue from a local newspaper to the internet, make the marketers involved some of the biggest brands in the world and suddenly, nobody is laughing.As Gonzalo Fuentes, global CEO media & digital practice at Kantar Insights, puts it, “The P and Gs and Cokes etc realise their investment is pretty high on digital. The mood has changed from experimentation to accountability.“ The result: People are no longer willing to let things they always knew were happening, slide. As Fuentes puts it, “When you were spending 5%, who cared? But when it's 32% you go `oh shit something needs to change.'“
Blame it on brands becoming more “purpose driven“. Objectionable content doesn't exist in a vacuum: there's obviously people consuming it, with the capacity and intention to spend. The bigger problem here is brands starting to get squeamish.Says Karthik Srinivasan, national lead, Social@Ogilvy,“That's the fuddy-duddy stuck-up variety: people who still see the world as just Black or White. The new world is fully grey.“ As Sakhuja points out, it gets murky when the ads are seen as the brand tacitly endorsing that environment.
“There's always politics and a bigger picture in play“. Even as Lindsay Pattison, CEO, Maxus Worldwide acknowledges, “Brand safety is a real issue,“ she's not entirely sure if it counts as a massive global concern. She adds, “In the UK, it's a specific challenge since The Times has chosen to surface it and you know who owns The Times -Rupert Murdoch. One might suggest he's losing money to the online giants. There's always politics and a bigger picture in play.“
What Next? Tear down the walled gardens and tame the Wild West. One of the most common demands from marketers and agencies is an end to the walled garden approach of the social media giants. It's entirely likely that a crisis is being used to push a long-hoped for agenda, but the one thing everyone we spoke to agreed on, was that third party monitoring, in whatever shape or form, was essential.
According to Pattison, who also cautions against knee -jerk reactions, GroupM has been leading the way; it even has a global head of brand safety in John Montgomery. This comes at a price but includes black lists, white lists and private marketplaces, where no controversial content will be served. YouTube instead relies on its algorithms to do the work. But , Pattison says, “Occasionally the algorithm gets it wrong.”
Brand safety is a minor issue compared to others waiting in the wings. For instance, bots, which according to a study by the Association of National Advertisers in America will cost advertisers globally $7.2 billion. Or viewability. Fuentes cites stats from the Interactive Advertising Bureau to point out that 55% of impressions served globally are non-viewable: which means the ad is streaming to a part of a browser that’s not visible or on a tab that a user has moved away from.
Google has apologised but a lot more is expected. In his speech, Anandan outlined major changes familiar to anyone who’d read a blog on the topic posted by Philipp Schindler, chief business officer at Google. These include “Raising the bar for our ad policies, increasing brand safety controls, including new controls and accelerating reviews and improving transparency.”Also, upping the speed at which it reacts to complaints. Numerous Google executives including Schindler, publicly apologised. But brands are proving a hard lot to satisfy. As J and J stated, “We take this matter very seriously and will continue to take every measure to ensure our brand advertising is consistent with our brand values.” The week to come will prove if YouTube will have as much success drawing back advertisers as it had, over the years, drawing in audiences keen for their fix of very-few-holds-barred content.