Advertisers are once again pausing their YouTube ad buys following a report that pre-roll ads have been appearing on videos of children that have become popular with pedophiles.
According to Wired UK, which conducted its own investigation following an exposé by a popular vlogger, some of the videos individually have millions of views. Disturbingly widespread pedophile activity is apparent in the comment sections associated with these videos.
In response to Wired UK’s report, AT&T, Disney, Nestlé, Epic Games and a growing number of other brands have halted their YouTube ad campaigns and are demanding that the Google-owned video service explain itself.
A spokesperson for software maker Grammarly, which advertises extensively on YouTube, told the New York Times, “When we learned of this issue, we were — and still are — absolutely horrified and reached out to YouTube to rectify this immediately. We have a strict policy against advertising alongside harmful or offensive content and would never knowingly associate ourselves with channels like this. It goes against everything our company stands for.”
Fool me once…
Advertisers like Grammarly have every reason to be disturbed by the latest YouTube scandal – the nature of the activity described is disturbing.
But is at least some of the advertiser outrage misplaced? Arguably yes.
That’s because this is not the first time that YouTube has faced backlash over questionable content on its platform, begging the question: if YouTube’s limited ability to effectively police the content uploaded to and made available through its service is well-established, isn’t greater introspection on the part of advertisers warranted every time their ads appear next to problematic content?
Indeed, most of the videos described in Wired UK’s report would appear to be of dubious value to advertisers even if they weren’t hotbeds of pedophile activity. Yes, there’s a discussion to be had about why YouTube is permitting home videos like those in question to be monetized in the first place, but the fact that advertisers are apparently only now learning that they’re buying inventory associated with such videos raises many questions about how they create and manage their advertising campaigns.
In short, if YouTube is incapable of or not sufficiently motivated to police its content, advertisers are just as responsible for the ill-effects because they are clearly incapable of – or perhaps too lazy to – keep a close eye on their campaigns.
Of course, what’s happening on YouTube isn’t unique to YouTube. Waste, fraud and brand-unfriendly content are known to be rampant, and while media buyers and sellers alike talk a good game about cleaning up the digital advertising market, money talks.
Media sellers continue to sell inventory they know is of low or no quality, and media buyers continue to buy this inventory. Will the latest YouTube scandal change that? If history is any indication, the answer is no.
This is not to say that savvy brands and agencies aren’t trying to improve the situation. They are. For example, some are moving away from open exchanges and embracing private marketplaces and programmatic direct deals instead. These give them access to premium inventory that is, in theory, higher quality and brand safe.
But as the latest YouTube scandal shows, major media buyers, in their pursuit of eyeballs, are still heavily dependent on platforms that might ultimately prove to be unpoliceable no matter how outraged they say they are every time scandal hits. Instead of feigning shock every time the world is reminded of this, they’d be wise to invest time in better managing their campaigns to mitigate the inherent risks.