Brands hit pause on YouTube as new content scandal unfolds

Just last month, U.S. telecom giant AT&T said it would resume advertising on YouTube following a two-year boycott over concerns about its ads running next to inappropriate or offensive content. On Thursday AT&T said it was out again, one of several big budget brands raising hard questions about YouTube’s ability to ensure brand safety.

The latest concerns stem from revelations that pedophiles are using the comments section on certain videos to facilitate what has been described as a “soft-core pedophilia ring.” The controversy erupted from a 20-minute video posted to YouTube on Feb. 17 by a video blogger named Matt Watson. In the video, which had amassed nearly 2.5 million views by Friday morning, Watson said that the comments section on some videos served as a “wormhole” into a soft-core pedophile ring that in some cases led directly to actual child pornography.

Watson’s video asserted that pedophiles are trading social media contacts and providing links to child pornography via the comments section. He showed evidence that some users are time stamping parts in the video where children are shown in what he described as “sexually implicit” positions.

At least some of these videos were adjacent to ads placed by several high-profile companies, including Disney, Nestle and, in one instance documented in his video. Nestle-owned companies in the U.S. “paused” advertising on the site, as have McDonald’s, video game company Epic Games and the packaged foods company Dr. Oetker. On Thursday, AT&T joined the holdouts as did Hasbro, while the hashtag #YouTubeWakeUp once again started making the rounds on social media.

In early 2017, YouTube faced marketer backlash—from AT&T and other big spenders like P&G—about ads appearing next to extremist content. Later that year, several brands in the U.K., including Adidas, Mars, Diageo and Cadbury, pulled advertising from the site after reports that their ads were appearing adjacent to videos showing children in various states of undress. Those videos also drew comments from pedophiles. Gradually advertisers returned after YouTube parent Alphabet made changes to address brand safety concerns.

This new scandal once again underscores the unpredictability of advertising on a channel like YouTube, where more than hundreds of hours of new content is uploaded every minute and much of the media placement is transacted programmatically.

Sherry O’Neil, co-founder of Toronto media agency Cairns O’Neil, said that the potential risk of an ad appearing alongside objectionable content makes any YouTube investment risky. “The risk is not worth the reward if I had brands that skew younger,” she said. “I would recommend pulling investments until we have far more certainty as to where our clients’ [ads] are running.”

Another Canadian buyer contacted by The Message said that the latest scandal is “digital at its worst,” but commended YouTube for its aggressive response in the past few days.

According to a report on Bloomberg, representatives from parent company Google spoke with major advertisers and agencies, and sent a memo assuring them it had “deleted predatory accounts” and was developing new tools capable of detecting commentators attempting to sexualize videos featuring children.

A Canadian spokesperson for Google, told The Message via e-mail that over the past 48 hours, the company has made moves “beyond our normal protections” to address the latest problem.

“Any content—including comments—that endangers minors is abhorrent, and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube,” said Google. “We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling comments on tens of millions of videos that include minors. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly.”

Google also terminated more than 400 channels; removed dozens of videos that could potentially put young people at risk; and took action against autocompletes that might have increased discoverability of this type of content.

In its statement to The Message, YouTube claimed it is “99% effective” at ensuring ads only appear in appropriate environments, and that it takes instances where they don’t “very seriously.” A spokesperson also noted that it gives advertisers the ability to block certain content categories, and immediately stops serving ads against any content found in violation of its policies.

YouTube represents just one aspect of the wide-ranging brand safety problems that have bedevilled advertisers and agencies trading in digital inventory, particularly social. It has led to the recent creation of entities such as the U.S. task force Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB)—a group of 4A’s member agencies working to monitor the environments in which their ads appear.

Comprised of so-called “brand safety leaders” from eight major network agency companies—Dentsu Aegis Network, GroupM, Havas Media, Horizon Media, IPG Mediabrands, MDC Partners, Omnicom Media Group and Publicis Media—the group works to flag risky brand environments, which are subsequently investigated by agency-client teams.

In September, the 4A’s also introduced two documents, the “Brand Safety Floor” and “Brand Suitability Framework,” designed to help agencies, advertisers, publishers, platforms and ad verification vendors develop buying guidelines that align ads with specific content categories.

The Brand Safety Floor, for example, identifies 13 content categories that pose a risk to advertisers and in which they could choose to adopt a “never appropriate” position for ad buys. The categories include adult and explicit sexual content, death or injury, illegal drugs and hate speech and acts of aggression. The Brand Suitability Framework, meanwhile, assigns low, medium and high risk levels to different classes of content within each of the categories.

The Media Rating Council (MRC) also recently issued the final version of its Supplemental Guidance on Content Level Context and Brand Safety Ad Verification, which modernizes brand safety guidelines by including a provision on “adjacency.” The guidance recognizes that brands can be harmed simply by being in the vicinity of potentially objectionable content.

But one advertising vet said that the time-honoured rule of buyer beware should apply to any advertiser that counts YouTube among its marketing channels.

“[Advertisers are saying] ‘I don’t know what I’m getting. My point would be that you do,” said Geoffrey Roche of Toronto firm Disruptincy. “Because you don’t have to go very far on YouTube to find inappropriate content. You’re crazy if you think that somehow or other, they’re going to be able to clean up their act enough that there isn’t going to be that kind of content.”

—Chris Powell



Chris Powell