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A wake-up call on brand safety

20 Mar 2019  |  Martin Vinter 
A wake-up call on brand safety

We’ve finally realised that YouTube is unlikely to ever be 100% safe for advertisers, writes Ebiquity's Martin Vinter. So how should brands navigate this problem?

Here we are again. Advertisers are divesting in YouTube, worried that the environment just isn’t safe enough for their brands, and fretting over associations or outright consumer outrage due to their brand being in the wrong environment.

A highly critical view is that YouTube is a platform offering brands a great space to advertise, but due to the very nature of user generated content – and technology deciding how and where to serve advertising – that comes with the risk of being associated with racists, terrorists and paedophiles.

YouTube has become synonymous with the ‘brand safety’ debacle that’s been raging for the last three to four years in earnest. Its disclosure earlier this month that it may never be able to guarantee “100 per cent safety” for brands will surprise few. Yet, can we accept it when we ask for zero tolerance on other media – which is often highly regulated and controlled. Is the status quo with regards to regulation fair to advertisers, consumers and media owners?

As major brands go through the annual charade of pulling spend from the platform in response to the latest calamity, it is different this time: we’ve finally realised that YouTube will, probably, never be properly safe for advertisers. This should be a wake-up call to the industry at large.

Though detection technology has improved significantly since 2017’s Sunday Times story, perspective is required.

YouTube’s AI today boasts a 98 per cent detection and removal rate for extremist or violent videos. But if 98 per cent never sees human eyes, 2 per cent does. And given the volume of video content on YouTube, that 2 per cent is still around 35 million videos a year.

While it’s true that this figure of detection will never remove 100 per cent of illegal content, it misses the point. Not all (deemed) brand-unsafe environments are illegal. Brand preference is also a factor on the spectrum of 'brand fraud’ at one end and ‘brand environment and association’ at the other.

The difference between illegal and questionable video content is subjective. Few brands may want to appear in the context of ‘anti-vaxxer’ videos; fewer still, probably, want to be affiliated with flat earth conspiracy theorists. But neither is illegal.

YouTube has to give room to the different topics, opinions and perspectives that come from the very nature of user generated content. The site was built on the premise that anyone, anywhere can upload content. Stopping that is a matter of censorship: who wants a corporation to be the arbiter of global free speech? No one, least not YouTube.

It begs the question: How do you create a sustainable platform where people feel free to engage with one another through content and comments that is safe for all ages and appeals to all users? How do you then make that environment safe for brands?

Let’s travel back to 2005, when YouTube’s ambition was simply to provide a place for individuals to share video content around which communities could be built. There was no inclination towards an advertising business model at that time. YouTube wasn’t built for advertisers, and it shows – it really shows on a philosophical level.

Its founders didn’t consider that when you invent the ship, you also open yourself to a potential shipwreck – or at least a scenario where the ship may run aground. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but no one who designed the YouTube platform ever expected it to be used in the most negative ways.

Addressing worst case scenarios by design would have helped to spot issues before they happened. Issues could have been ameliorated before they became problematic. But now that YouTube has a virtual monopoly on online video content, it seems too little too late.

Simply deleting comments after the event is targeting the symptom, not the cause. Taking down horrific videos when they’ve already been seen by millions, when countless ads have been sold against that space, is only covering YouTube’s tracks.

Hosting conspiracy theories is a price paid for free and open speech. Combined, YouTube is not deemed to be a brand safe environment by an increasing number of bigger advertisers – those who really worry about how their brand is managed and perceived. But, all this is not to negate YouTube’s value to these advertisers.

VOD and streaming is on the rise, and investment in it is often used to counter declines in other media – especially for younger audiences who may not be watching linear TV at the same rate.

YouTube is also the world’s biggest hub to view and consume content (including advertising), to engage consumers on a variety of levels and build communities. In many instances it offers far greater volume for a far lower price — with far greater variety of formats — than any other media (quality and measurement aside).

Simplifying the generic marketers conundrum significantly; in the quest for both quantity and quality, the former is abundant on YouTube. But that is half the problem. Casting the net wide to get cheaper impressions is laden with brand safety issues – never mind brand building and effectiveness issues.

Rather than pulling spend every time these brand safety stories come to light, advertisers may want to go through a process of risk management – as many advertisers already do. But no amount of crystal balls will help answer the fundamental questions brands have, and that is why we are where we are – divesting partly or fully, controlling the investment and placements tighter, are the general outcomes for serious advertisers who understand the worth of their brand.

Yes, YouTube has brand safety issues. But it’s a risk vs. reward scenario. It still has reach, on-target audiences, trackable ‘performance media’ targets and so on. Brand safety is not a topic that exists in isolation. Hence we are marketers and media professionals as well as parents and citizens so impassioned about the subject.

With my marketing and media hat on, however, one thing is clear: the ‘certainty of environment’ enjoyed in the traditional media landscape is not replicated online. And with billions of hours of user generated content, bad actors will always find ways to slip through the gaps.

A regular review of digital media investment is key to strike the balance – whatever your marketing and media objectives.

Martin Vinter is managing director, media at Ebiquity

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22 May 2020 

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