Yesterday, after weeks of ad agencies and media buyers airing their grievances through the press, YouTube announced some tools to help advertisers ensure they’re not placing ads against violent, hateful and otherwise blatantly offensive videos. As I followed this saga through media stories about it (I don’t have any skin in this game) it seemed to me that this was the result of a very new conversation but it’s the latest iteration of a very old topic.
The new conversation is around advertisers social responsibility to not encourage hate speech. That seems like a big burden to put on companies, who are also feeling pressured to take public stances on social topics. It’s no longer permissible, it seems, to just buy as much ad inventory as possible however blindly and then turn around and crow to the client about the reach of the campaign. ]
That used to be socially acceptable, even if it was always morally squishy. It was alright to place ads on all sorts of videos and websites because hey, it’s business folks. And the search for reach was so all-encompassing and all-important that it trumped any concerns about the kind of content that was being supported by those ad buys. Sure, there was a bit of hand-wringing about this or that specific execution, but it never lead to any systemic changes in the industry. The rise of ad networks, including recent developments around programmatic buying and other technology that takes human consideration out of the equation, only exacerbated the problem.
Now, though, there’s real concern about the damage that can be done to a corporate reputation by advertising on the wrong site or video. It’s no longer just the kind of nail-biting and furrowed brows that were prevalent back in the days when blogs were ascendant and people worried about how Google AdSense was going to put ads for your company alongside unedited consumer-generated content that might be a bit offensive. That has evolved to the point where there are legitimate concerns about big brand campaigns running on – and therefore financially supporting – sites and videos that espouse white nationalist and other viewpoints that honestly haven’t we quashed these by now?
This is where the advertising industry needs to be a bit more appreciative of the work that’s done by the PR side of the marketing world. It’s those PR practitioners that are concerned *all the time* about where a message is appearing, what the context is and what impact the big picture has on corporate perception and reputation. The fumbling way the advertising industry has handled the recent uptick in conversations around placing ads on fake news sites, hate-filled videos and more shows how much they have to learn about how to engage in two-way conversations, having grown too comfortable with just pushing things out in a monodirectional way.
The advertising industry went way too far in the direction of “dumb” ad buying, leaving everything up to algorithms and automated bidding systems that took away a great deal of accountability from the buyers themselves. Now that’s come back to bite them as they find themselves responsible for doing reputational damage by allowing ads to run on hateful content. Hopefully, those in power can find a way alter the system to one that still allows for the kind of mass reach that was achieved but doesn’t get a brand into hot water for being seen as financing Nazis and other bad actors.