How can vehicles like YouTube be made safe?

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YouTube is embroiled in yet another brand safety scandal

YouTube was recently beleaguered by yet another scandal involving brand safety. A Wired investigation revealed that many major advertisers, including Alfa Romeo, Grammerly and L’Oreal were featuring alongside videos that had widespread activity by paedophiles in the comments section. In response, brands such as AT&T, Disney, Nestle and Epic Games pulled their YouTube spend. This isn’t the first time that they’ve had to do this following a brand safety scandal: in early 2017, UK newspaper the Times revealed that brands were unwittingly funding terrorism by appearing next to extremist videos. Indeed, AT&T had only recently resumed its spend before pulling it again after this latest issue.

It appears that media vendors continue to sell very poor-quality content, and buyers continue to purchase it – will anything change? How?

Why is this happening?

With their ads appearing alongside some of the most unsavoury content imaginable, you’d be forgiven for assuming that brands would turn their backs on YouTube permanently, or at least until they could be assured that it wouldn’t happen again. You could also be forgiven for thinking that tackling this matter would be top of vendors’ list of priorities, given that their business model is so dependent on advertising. So what’s going on?

It’s all about the money

The answer is, as it so often is, money. For vendors, the temptation to sell huge bundles of automated or semi-automated impressions can be too strong to pass up, while the sheer reach of those impressions is hard for advertisers to resist. The issue here is a lack of motivation on both sides to police content: brands could be doing more to monitor their campaigns, while vendors certainly have work to do around the content that appears on their platforms, and what advertising appears next to that content. The algorithm always goes where eyeballs go, which can lead to errors: for example, children’s videos often have high viewing figures, and children don’t tend to skip ads. The algorithm thinks this is fertile ground for an advertiser and promptly serves… an alcohol ad. This is especially likely if the child is looking at mum’s iPad and the brand is using demographic targeting. To be fair, Google has gone to significant effort to build tech that can track consumers across all devices, but that hasn’t stopped its targeting capabilities falling short, as the example above illustrates.

In short, these scandals are happening because of an industry that continues to reward quantity rather than quality.

So what can be done to improve brand safety?

This is a difficult battle but it’s certainly one worth fighting as digital advertising becomes ever more prevalent and important. Responsibility lies with the platforms, of course – they must try much harder to make their content safer (not just for advertisers), and to prevent ads being served alongside potentially damaging content. But brands have work to do as well.

Advertisers must be more careful about where their ads are being served, and what bundles they buy. There will always be a conflict between reach and relevance: while vendors and tech firms sell a dream of the automated purchasing of millions of hyper relevant, this is completely unrealistic, particularly in the short and medium terms.

Using premium marketplaces

One avenue that some savvy brands are pursuing in order to mitigate the risk of ads being served alongside ‘unsafe’ content is premium marketplaces, such as Google’s Preferred programme, private marketplaces and programmatic direct deals. These platforms give brands access to – at a premium price – inventory that is higher quality, brand safe and more relevant, in theory at least. However, these platforms are becoming increasingly crowded by concerned advertisers, and the packages often leave out high quality content. Alarmingly, there have even been instances where the packages have included content that has caused the brand safety scandals that brands are desperately seeking to avoid.

Other formats are an option

Of course, there are other options to the ‘traditional’ video ad: native advertising is not only safer, but also easier to target at the right audiences, so you get relevance and reach.

Vendors must act too

Of course, it goes without saying that the platforms themselves must really focus on weeding out inappropriate content, and on being stricter about which content can be monetised through ads. This might be controversial amongst content producers who rely on ad dollars for their income, but it will be critical to the success of the video platforms and avoidance of the scandals that have beset them in recent years.

There’s no easy answer

This is a complex issue which will take a lot of work from both brands and vendors to overcome; there’s no silver bullet. Google’s EMEA president even admitted that the tech giant may well never be able to guarantee 100% safety for brands. Advertisers will need to accept that they can’t have both huge reach and hyper relevance: greater relevance will come at a cost through programmes such as Google Preferred or private programmatic exchanges. Meanwhile, vendors must of course invest in tools and technology to make their content safe – for advertisers and viewers.

Image: Shutterstock

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