For YouTube, 2017 has been bookended by brand safety crises, and on Thursday night (23 November) the issue loomed large over the platform’s final pitch to UK advertisers at its annual Brandcast upfronts event.
Less than an hour after the all-singing all-dancing spectacle drew to a close, the Times published yet another report into ad misplacement, this time alleging that campaigns from some of the world’s biggest brands – including Adidas and Amazon – had been featured against videos depicting “undressed” or “scantily clad” children. The paper also claimed these videos were attracting "comments from paedophiles".
As Google execs took to the stage to reassure advertisers that it was working on solutions to previous brand safety issues, the likes of Adidas, Mars, HP, Diageo, Cadbury, Deutsche Bank and Lidl all pulled live campaigns in response to the Times' front page story.
Adidas said the situation was “completely unacceptable” while Mars said “we will not advertise on YouTube” until safeguards are in place. Diageo also said it was enforcing an “immediate stop”.
Safety 'a priority'
Just before this news broke, Google's UK and Ireland boss Ronan Harris announced updates at the star-studded event that his team believed would help tackle the issue.
Harris directly addressed a separate, earlier, story which broke last weekend in which the Times wrote that YouTube was serving ads against videos featuring child abuse and disturbing scenarios.
“It’s wholly unacceptable to us that any of our brand partners have their advertising shown against undesirable content. And it’s wholly unacceptable that this undesirable content might be shown to some of our users,” he said.
He added that whether it be extremism or child exploitation, Google was working to ensure YouTube remained a “safe” place for brands and users.
As part of this, he pointed to a series of product upgrades YouTube will implement in response to claims that videos of child exploitation were being monetised via branded content.
The first of these changes, he explained, involved blocking inappropriate – or in Harris’ words “predatory” – comments on videos featuring minors and turning off comments on these posts entirely when necessary.
The second, involved working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and reporting comments of this nature, as well as illegal behaviour, to law enforcement.
In the past, Google has made no secret of the fact it is investing in machine learning to help it combat the brand safety dilemma, because with over 400 hours of video being uploaded to the site every minute it is all but impossible to police manually.
Harris said that in October AI removed 83% of violent and extremist videos before a single viewer flagged. "The technology is getting better, and we're now directing it towards the more nuanced content trends that we've seen emerge lately," he said, hinting that it has a role to play in identifying inappropriate videos such as the ones the Times’ investigation has thrown up.
While Harris did not comment on the latest Times report, he added that YouTube was also hiring more human staff to help moderate the platform.
When extremist content was first found to be monitsed on YouTube, which took a 45% cut against brands' 55%, around 250 advertisers froze their ad spend. The majority had resumed over the past 12 months, and the scandal is understood to have had little impact on Google's bottom line, but it's yet to be seen if brands will be as forgiving this time around.
YouTube's Upfront wasn't all about brand safety. In its star-studded pitch to advertisers, which saw Craig David and fitness guru Joe Wicks take to the stage, Harris also highlighted the platform's ongoing investment in original programming.
The evening's host, comedian Jack Whitehall, was hired because he is poised to front a new unscripted YouTube original show about football, titled Training Days. The series will be made by the production company behind Carpool Karaoke, with James Corden as a producer.
"When we look at what is driving attention on YouTube, much like TV, it is all about content," Harris told the audience, claiming that as per Google's figures 15% of YouTube watch time in the UK is now happening on the living room screen.
"Over the last two years, more than six billion hours of TV show content has been uploaded to YouTube. This year we've also made leaps forward in our own ad-funded original programming," he added pointing to shows it is launching this year like What the Fit with comedian Kevin Hart, cementing the idea that this area will be be a big play for his business in 2018.
On stage, Harris also revealed fresh ComScore data which found that in the UK at least daily watchtime exceeded 55-minutes for 18-34 year olds.
He also said that 70% of YouTube watch time by UK adults occurs on mobile devices.
Additional reporting by Jessica Goodfellow