Google under fire as brands pull advertising and ad industry demands action

Google admits it could be doing more to ensure ad safety as the UK ad industry finally speaks up over the issue of advertising appearing next to extremist content.

ad safety

Updated 18 March, 4.30pm: French media group Havas has pulled all its spend from Google and YouTube. Its UK CEO Paul Frampton says: “We have a duty of care to our clients in the UK marketplace to position their brands in the right context where we can be assured that that environment is safe, regulated to the degree necessary and additive to their brands’ objectives.

“Our position will remain until we are confident in the YouTube platform and Google Display Network’s ability to deliver the standards we and our clients expect.”

GroupM, WPP’s media agency says it has no plans to follow suit. A spokesperson says: “Digital advertising on platforms where content is user-generated and not curated has inherent brand safety risks. GroupM vigorously pursues every brand safety precaution and technology available to mitigate these risks, and we encourage all clients to make use of these tools.

“At the highest levels, we have communicated with Google, Facebook, Snapchat and other partners to encourage their development of solutions. However, a 100% foolproof system may not be possible. It’s important that brands know this and proceed with caution – as well as with available safety tools.”

Google had admitted it could be doing more to ensure ad safety as a number of brands pull advertising from its sites and the ad industry demands Google “do more” to stop ads appearing next to extremist content.

An ongoing investigation by The Times found that ads from brands including L’Oréal, the Guardian and the Cabinet Office had appeared next to extremist content. For example, a L’Oréal ad promoting the Prince’s Trust appeared on a video posted by hate preacher Steven Anderson, while the Guardian found ads for its membership scheme on videos posted by Britain First.

The government has also found that its ads were appearing next to inappropriate content. It has “temporarily restricted” ads from appearing on YouTube and is summoning Google for discussions at the Cabinet Office to “explain how it will deliver the high quality of service that government demands on behalf of the taxpayer”.

Brands pull advertising

Google is facing a hit from other brands. Channel 4 has “pulled all advertising from YouTube with immediate effect. Dan Brooke, its chief communications and marketing officer, explains: “We are extremely concerned about Channel 4 advertising being placed alongside highly offensive material on YouTube. It is a direct contravention of assurances our media buying agency had received on our behalf from YouTube.

“As we are not satisfied that YouTube is currently a safe environment we have removed all Channel 4 advertising from the platform with immediate effect.”

READ MORE: Brand safety online – Can it ever be guaranteed?

The Guardian has echoed Channel 4 in pulling all its advertising. David Pemsel, its CEO, wrote to Google to say it was “completely unacceptable” that its advertising was appearing in these situations and that it would not advertise via YouTube again until Google can “guarantee that this ad misplacement will not happen again”.

“The decision by the Guardian to blacklist YouTube will have financial implications for the Guardian in terms of the recruitment of members to fund our journalism,” wrote Pemsel, according to the Guardian.

We are not satisfied that YouTube is currently a safe environment so we have removed all Channel 4 advertising from the platform with immediate effect.

Dan Brooke, Channel 4

“Given the dominance of Google, DoubleClick and YouTube in the digital economy, many brands feel that it is essential to place advertising on your platform. It is therefore vital that Google, DoubleClick and YouTube uphold the highest standards in terms of openness, transparency, and measures to avoid advertising fraud and misplacement in the future. It is very clear that this is not the case at the moment.”

Ad industry demands change

The ad industry has also been more strident in its views. ISBA is now urging Google to “immediately review its policies and controls” on how advertising is placed and “raise the bar to eliminate the risks”.

“More needs to be done now to protect the reputation of responsible advertisers on digital platforms,” says Phil Smith, ISBA’s director general.

“Whatever Google’s editorial policy, advertising should only be sold against content that is safe for brands.”

ISBA is calling on Google to immediately withdraw from sale any ad inventory that it cannot guarantee is safe. For example, it suggests Google should review the practice of placing ads immediately against newly-uploaded YouTube content, before it has been classified.

Advertisers are also being urged to ensure they have the most stringent policies in place to ensure theirs ads appear in brand safe environment. JICWEBS and the Digital Standard Trading Group certify companies for their online brand safety processes. Google is not currently certified by JICWEBS, instead opting to use a US system known as TAG.

Google in the firing line

Google’s new boss for the UK and Ireland Ronan Harris faced a direct challenge over ad safety from WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell just last week. Sorrell claimed Google was being evasive about how its algorithms and advertising technology works, despite long-held and vocal concerns from the marketing community.

Harris has defended the company’s record on ad viewability and transparency and insisted that other stakeholders in the digital economy must play their part in improving standards.

However, in a new blog post, he has now admitted that Google could be doing more. While he says that in the “vast majority of cases our policies work as intended”, he recognises that there are cases where ads appear next to content that it should not.

“We know we can and must do more,” he says.

“We’ve heard from our advertisers and agencies loud and clear that we can provide simpler, more robust ways to stop their ads from showing against controversial content. While we have a wide variety of tools to give advertisers and agencies control over where their ads appear, such as topic exclusions and site category exclusions, we can do a better job of addressing the small number of inappropriately monetised videos and content.

“We’ve begun a thorough review of our ads policies and brand controls, and we will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network.

“We are committed to working with publishers, advertisers and agencies to address these issues and earn their trust every day so that they can use our services both successfully and safely.”