A few days after the March 22 terror attack outside the British parliament, hundreds of ISIS videos emerged on YouTube, hailing the onslaught on civilians. While some glorified the actions of terrorist Khalid Masood, who stabbed a police officer to death, others showcased jihadist messages and scenes of violence. But these videos featured one other thing: advertisements by unsuspecting brands.
YouTube, the video-sharing platform of Google — which it acquired in 2006 for $1.65 billion — has been facing heat from advertisers for nearly two months now, following an investigation by The Times. The British daily revealed how “dozens of YouTube videos promoting Combat 18, a violent pro-Nazi group, ISIS and hate speech from Al Qaeda preachers, all run pop-up ads from reputable brands such as Marie Curie, the hospice charity, and Mercedes-Benz”.
“The adverts play either during or just before the videos and generally pay out between $5-$8 per 1,000 clicks… Advertising revenue is split 55 per cent to 45 per cent in the poster’s favour, raising the prospect that marketing spending from western brands is finding its way into the pockets of extremists,” the story by Alexi Mostrous, head of investigations at The Times, revealed.
So, Sony was being promoted on an anti-Semitic video; a Combat 18 video of an armed man standing in front of a burning swastika, hosts an advert for Marie Curie; and ads for Honda, Thomson Reuters, and Halifax appeared next to extremist videos.
The expose triggered a storm in the corporate and advertising world, with scores of brands in the UK and Europe — Royal Bank of Scotland, BBC, The Guardian, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury etc — pulling out their adverts from YouTube. More recently, video platforms were under fire in America, where AT&T, one of the biggest advertisers in the United States, has stopped its ads from running on Google properties “amid concern that Google is not doing enough to prevent brands from appearing next to offensive material, like hate speech”.
“The same tech that allows tweeting your love of a team allows the tweeting of hatred of religions, races, genders or elected officials on a continuum that runs from disagreement and ignorance to mendaciousness and incitement,” writes Rob Norman, the chief digital officer at Group M, in Campaign magazine.
On its part, Google has been insisting that it has a “zero-tolerance policy for content that incites violence”, but the fact that adverts continue to appear next to “unpalatable content” as recently as last week, has left advertisers increasingly concerned.
“The row highlights an uncomfortable fact about advertising in a digital age: most brands don’t know exactly where their online advertising is running. Black box machines are now largely responsible for the placement of ads online, using complex trading systems that try to get the right message in front of the right person at the right time for the the cheapest possible price…. When an ad appears against a piece of content, it’s not always clear whether it’s been shown based on a person’s previous browsing behaviour, interests, or demographic data…,” writes Olivia Solon in The Guardian.
The “black box” that Solon refers to is a process called ‘programmatic advertising’, that is employed by video-sharing websites to place ads, and many have blamed it for the erroneous positioning of ads.
“Programmatic advertising allows advertisers to lay out the general parameters of what kind of person they want to reach — say, a young man under 25 — and trust that their ad will find that person, no matter where he might be on the Internet. This approach… allows advertisers to use automation and data to cheaply and efficiently reach their own audiences, funneling money through a complicated system of agencies and third-party networks,” explain Daisuke Wakabayashi and Sapna Maheshwari in The New York Times.
“But the situation with YouTube is particularly jarring. YouTube splits advertising revenue with its users, meaning advertisers risk directly funding creators of hateful, misogynistic or terrorism-related content,” the writers warn.
Responding to the latest controversy, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said in an interview to Fox Business Network: “What we do is, we match ads and the content, but because we source the ads from everywhere, every once in a while somebody gets underneath the algorithm and they put in something that doesn’t match. We’ve had to tighten our policies and increase our manual review.”
While Schmidt’s emphasis on “manual review” could be the solution to the problem, the scale of the company’s advertising operations may prove to be a hurdle. Four hundred hours of content is uploaded to the platform every minute and, along with Facebook, Google accounts for nearly 90 per cent of the growth in the online advertising industry. To manually monitor all the content will be a tall order, as per a piece in The Guardian, and would require more than 50,000 full-time staff doing nothing but watching videos for eight hours a day.
Experts also blame Google’s “crowd-sourcing” approach — relying on users to raise complaints about controversial videos before removing them — for the present crisis. “Controversial videos with narrow audiences — such as a piece of Britain First propaganda with fewer than 20,000 views — often will never reach users who consider the content controversial, limiting the usefulness of such an approach,” The Guardian report notes.
Critics argue that the problems confronting Google — robots mimicking Internet users and clicking on ads, ads appearing with fake news — run deep, and the company’s “mild” response to the YouTube controversy could cost them anything between $750 million and about $1 billion in 2017. “Their public statements do not suggest to us that they appreciate the degree to which advertisers are concerned, and the continuing announcements of advertisers suspending their activity on Google properties reinforces our view,” Pivotal analyst Wieser told Market Watch columnist Therese Poletti.
“It all does smack more than a little of a case of nudging the stable door shut when the horse is already in the next county. Either the company knew this problem was happening and chose to ignore, or it didn’t know because it wasn’t watching user uploaded content closely enough,” writes Will Goodbody in RTÉ, an Irish news platform.
The row has also prompted many to reflect on what Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s influential global chief brand officer, said earlier this year: “We have seen an exponential increase in, well…crap. Craft or crap? Technology enables both and, all too often, the outcome has been more crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences. (We) bombard consumers with thousands of ads a day, subject them to endless ad load times, interrupt them with pop-ups, and overpopulate their screens… Is it any wonder ad blockers are growing 40 per cent?” Pritchard said at the annual conference of the Internet Advertising Bureau in January.
As Google struggles to set its house in order, there are few, however, who stand to gain. “The defections come at a particularly bad time: the television upfronts (meeting of network executives with advertisers) are starting, and TV networks are likely to use this controversy to highlight the benefits of advertising alongside professionally produced content… rather than hoping an algorithm can connect brands with customers,” points out Avi Salzman in Barron’s Next, the website for Barron’s magazine.
And then there are others such as Eric Feinberg, who has patented a technology that can help solve Google’s problems. “Feinberg, a marketing industry veteran, has developed ‘Gipec’, (a software) that can sniff out when videos feature objectionable phrases. He has been pointing out many of the recent brands-in-bad-places examples to journalists, fuelling the spate of stories that have become major Google headaches,” writes Mike Shields in The Wall Street Journal.
While Google will have to walk a tightrope now, it can take some solace from a recent prediction in The Financial Times, which says that advertisers are likely to spend more online than they do on TV in 2017.
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