Brands Encounter New Danger With Their YouTube Ad Placements

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YouTube is once again facing a brand advertiser exodus for reputation-harming advertising placements. A Nov. 24 Times of London investigation revealed that YouTube ran ads from "dozens" of brands with videos uploaded by children that were targets for predatory comments. Most of these videos, the article noted, were posted by children who did not know that the videos—some of which showed young girls in their underwear or rolling around in bed—were attracting online predators.

After the Times piece was published, brands like Adidas, Diageo, Deutsche Bank and Mars announced they were pulling YouTube advertising. Deutsche Bank said in a statement that its marketing agency "applied filters to prevent...advertising appearing alongside inappropriate content," and that the company is "investigating how the situation arose.”

In an email statement to PR News, a Diageo spokesperson wrote, "We are deeply concerned and are investigating this as a matter of urgency. We always insist that our media providers adhere to the most stringent of precautions...We are enforcing an immediate stop of all YouTube advertising until...appropriate safeguards are in place."

An Adidas spokesperson added, "We recognize that this situation is clearly unacceptable and have taken immediate action, working closely with Google on all necessary steps to avoid any reoccurrences of this situation.”

Diageo, Adidas and the other brands' current situation serve as a warning to those who employ an outside agency to oversee online ad placements. Any campaign targeting that relies on Google's algorithm (YouTube, AdWords, etc.) should be reviewed as carefully in-house as it is by outside agency partners. Ultimately, brands will be the ones to receive public criticism rather than the partners they work with—especially if that partner, as in Diageo's case, is a "media provider" like Google.

This is not the first time YouTube has been in the hot seat regarding its ad placements. In March 2017, the Association of National Advertisers called on Google to take steps to protect against placements on videos that used hate speech or inappropriate messaging. Johnson & Johnson, General Motors, Lyft, AT&T and Verizon were among the affected brands, which pulled YouTube ads after it was revealed that their ads were running on videos posted by white nationalists, anti-gay preachers and radical Islamic groups.

Google has responded to this latest brand exodus with a blog post titled, "5 ways we’re toughening our approach to protect families on YouTube and YouTube Kids." The post states that in the last week, YouTube has "terminated over 50 channels" and "removed thousands of videos" under guidelines that seek to protect against child endangerment.

The post also makes mention of "machine learning technology" and "automated tools" to make the process smarter, but until these technologies are capable of limiting reputation-harming content at scale, brands will have to apply a discerning human eye when making ad targeting and spending decisions.