Google placement, brand safety crisis hits US, with AT&T and Verizon pulling ads

AT&T, in addition to Verizon, has pulled ad spend on Google.

Google’s ad placement and brand safety issues have crossed the Atlantic, with AT&T and Verizon announcing that they are pulling advertising from YouTube.

A wave of the large global brands, including L’Oreal, Audi, Volkswagen and HSBC, pulled advertising after a Times of London report found that household brands were helping to fund terrorist propaganda and pornography on YouTube. UK-based brands, including the Guardian, BBC, Channel 4 and Sainsbury’s, also decided to cease advertising on the platform. Additionally, the UK government and Transport for London had ads against hate speech, rape apologists and anti-Semitic content.

In what could be a first drop in a much larger ocean, both US-based telecoms behemoths moved to suspend their spends on Google, except for search. Reported by The Wall Street Journal, this means that AT&T, for example, will not only remove ads from YouTube, but the more than 2m third-party websites in the search giant’s ad network.

In a statement, AT&T said: “We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate. Until Google can ensure this won’t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google’s non-search platforms.”

For its part, Verizon noted in a statement that: “We take careful measure to ensure our brand is not impacted negatively. Once we were notified that our ads were appearing on non-sanctioned websites, we took immediate action to suspend this type of ad placement and launched an investigation. We are working with all of our digital advertising partners to understand the weak links so we can prevent this from happening in the future.”

Both AT&T and Verizon are among the biggest advertisers in the US. According to Kantar Media, AT&T spent around $1.84bn on advertising in the US in 2015, ranking it the number 2 top spender.

In working to assuage concerns, Matt Brittin, Google’s EMEA president of business and operations, told an Advertising Week Europe audience how the company would attempt to solve the conundrum of brand ads running alongside inappropriate video content.

That strategy first includes focusing on improving policies around what “safe” content means, by refining definitions of hate speech or inappropriate content. Additionally, controls are being assessed with the aim of ensuring that brands can implement brand safety practices. And finally, Brittin revealed that Google will work faster in enforcing existing rules as it relates to content removal from the YouTube platform.

“We’ve begun an extensive review of our advertising policies and have made a public commitment to put in place changes that give brands more control over where their ads appear,” a Google spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, not directly addressing the AT&T issue. “We’re also raising the bar for our ad policies to further safeguard our advertisers’ brands.”

The hit Google is taking at the moment is significant, and Pivotal Research Group, an equity advisory, downgraded Alphabet, Google and YouTube’s parent company, from buy to hold.

“We’re not confident that this approach will be sufficient to remedy advertiser concerns,” a statement from the group said.

Brands themselves are not the only chorus of dissent as this crisis unfolds. Havas Group UK, a £35m-a-year spender on the search engine on behalf of its UK clients, suspended all budgets going through YouTube and Google Display Network.

Omnicom Media Group is working with clients to address the situation but called for a “sustainable solution.”

GroupM is advising a wait-and-see approach, not telling clients to kill spend, but rather to be “mindful of the implications and join us in working with Google and others to meet our collective brand safety standards.”

Michael Roth, Interpublic Group’s (IPG) CEO, said that the holding company would give Google a fair shot to turn things around, but would jump into the pool of brands leaving if it didn’t act quickly.

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Doug Zanger

Doug Zanger is the Americas editor for The Drum. He leads the Americas editorial team’s content activity in the growing region. Based in Portland, Oregon, he is committed to sharing the most meaningful stories that benefit the global industry and its people. A Minnesota native, Zanger has covered a wide range of brands, issues and personalities, including Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, Wendy Clark, Susan Credle, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and more. Fiercely dedicated to diversity, equality and talent, he has interviewed several women in leadership roles through his Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

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