The UK boycott of YouTube and the Google Display Network jumped the pond Wednesday when AT&T, Verizon and Johnson & Johnson joined the ever-growing pile-on of advertisers suspending their ad spend over brand safety concerns.
But the issue at the heart of this developing scandal – ads appearing next to extremist and offensive content – is almost as old as the notion of automated ad buying.
Which begs the question: Why now, exactly?
The reasons are not entirely clear, but a number of factors are likely fanning the flames, including the heated political climate in the UK, where Brexit has divided the nation. The situation in the UK grows ever tenser in the wake of a deadly terror attack on Britain’s Houses of Parliament Wednesday that killed five and left 40 injured.
Google is the largest and most obvious target for this angst, especially in Europe, where there’s no love lost between the EU and large US tech firms.
While it’s true that no brand wants to be viewed as a de facto supporter of unsavory or highly partisan content, the buy side could also use the Google brand safety situation to get more leverage in subsequent negotiations.
But brands cutting spend might also be cutting off their nose to spite their face on one end of the spectrum or just being plain reactionary on the other. Business Insider, for example, reported that one marketer who had gleefully jumped aboard its high horse, telling Google to nix all of its ad spend, search included, rang back just a few hours later to, perhaps sheepishly, request that its search ads be turned back on.
It’s worth noting that brands appear to be conflating the brand safety issues on YouTube with Google display overall and tarring GDN with the same brush.
Blood In The Water
Google’s woes in the UK don’t come completely out of the blue. The UK government has been researching the state of extremism on the web since the summer of 2015.
In August, a select task force committee of the UK Parliament published a report after a year-long inquiry into whether social media giants, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, were “consciously failing” to combat the use of their sites to promote terrorism and killings.
The report noted that although Google had removed more than 14 million videos globally in 2014 because of abuse, these efforts were nothing more than a drop in the ocean.
Last year, Google claims to have removed 1.7 billion “bad” ads – ads deemed to be misleading, inappropriate or harmful – from its systems and prevented those ads from serving on more than 300 million YouTube videos.
But Parliament’s report tossed the ball directly into the center of Google’s court, asserting that it’s the behemoth’s responsibility to “accept that the hundreds of millions in revenues generated from billions of people using their products needs to be accompanied by a greater sense of responsibility and ownership for the impact that extremist material on their sites is having.”
Although Google told the select committee at the time that it has a team that manually searches for extremist content online and makes assessments on what to remove and which accounts to suspend, it declined to say how many people it had dedicated to the effort.
“Huge corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter, with their billion-dollar incomes, are consciously failing to tackle this threat and passing the buck by hiding behind their supranational legal status, despite knowing that their sites are being used by the instigators of terror,” wrote Keith Vaz, a member of Parliament and former Home Affairs Select Committee chair, in materials related to the government report.
Following the UK government’s inquiry and subsequent report came a mostly quiet period.
That is, until early February, when the blows really started to rain down on Google’s head after the British daily national newspaper The Times criticized Google for allowing dozens of offensive YouTube videos to monetize with banner pop-ups.
Among the offenders were video featuring neo-Nazi cartels, vitriolic al-Qaeda preachers and promotions for ISIS, all of which were pocketing somewhere between $5 and $8 CPMs from legit and unsuspecting brands, like Mercedes-Benz and UK supermarket chain Waitrose.
On March 14, Google’s VP of communications and public affairs for EMEA met with parliamentary officials to make assurances about the measures it was taking to “tackle hate, abuse and extremism online.”
But just a few days later, The Guardian announced it was pulling its online ads from GDN and YouTube, and in short order, Havas UK, L’Oreal and the UK government followed suit.
On March 17, the UK government sent Google a strongly worded letter demanding answers as to why extremist outfits – and Google – were “still profiting from hatred.” The letter also asked Google whether it would be refunding money to the government and other advertisers.
Google responded quickly with an apology and an update to its brand safety controls for display and video advertisers, including more robust defaults to automatically omit a broader range of content, and a promise to hire “significant numbers” of people and to develop new machine-learning and AI-driven tools to increase its ability to review and block “questionable content for advertising.”
Regardless, the dominoes fell – and seemingly continue to fall – quickly. More than 250 brands, many of which are Havas clients, pulled the plug on their YouTube and GDN ad spending, including HSBC, Marks & Spencer, Toyota, McDonald’s, Heinz, Volkswagen, O2, BBC, RBS and Tesco.
Financial analysts are also reacting to the negative press. Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser downgraded Alphabet’s stock from buy to hold on Monday, and reduced its price target from $970 to $950.
But other than Havas, other large agency buyers, including WPP, Publicis Groupe, IPG, Omnicom and Dentsu Aegis Network, are still buying Google as usual.
Until Wednesday, the majority of the anti-Google furor was isolated within the UK. But that’s when three major US advertisers joined the fray, with AT&T, Verizon and Johnson & Johnson suspending their non-search Google ad spend.
What remains now is to see which other advertisers decide to pull the plug and what additional steps Google will take to ensure brand safety. And whether or when the advertisers who halted non-search ad spend on Google will be back.
“We will continue to act swiftly to put these new policies and processes in place across our ad network and YouTube,” wrote Google Chief Business Officer Philipp Schindler in a company blog post. “But we also intend to act carefully, preserving the value we currently provide to advertisers, publishers and creators of all sizes.”