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Accredited or Not, YouTube Will Always Have a Brand Safety Problem

In February, YouTube made news as the first digital platform accredited for brand safety by the Media Ratings Council. At a time when brands are increasingly sensitive about the content they’re associated with, it was a major milestone for the industry, but more so for YouTube.

In 2017, YouTube faced a boycott from advertisers after it was found that ads for major brands were appearing alongside videos with extremist content, hate speech, and terrorist propaganda. YouTube has since worked hard to earn back the trust of advertisers. But as recently as January, YouTube again found itself in hot water when ads for over 100 top brands were found to be funding climate misinformation videos without the brands’ knowledge.

Brands have good reason to be concerned about brand safety. Many consumers perceive unsafe ad placements as an intentional endorsement by brands. A 2018 study found that consumers’ willingness to associate with brands whose ads appeared alongside negative content dropped by 280% after viewing the ad, while their purchasing intent dropped by 200%.

However, after years of brand safety scandals, the accreditation from the Media Ratings Council should at last put advertisers’ concerns to rest. According to YouTube, brands can be assured that their new protections — a combination of automated content analysis filters and an army of more than 10,000 human raters — will ensure brand safety 99% of the time.

But is 99% really enough? With over 500 hours of video uploaded every minute, the remaining 1% means millions of videos will still slip through the cracks in YouTube’s brand safety filters. YouTube can add ever more powerful technology to screen out harmful content, but with the sheer volume of user generated content uploaded every minute, they will never be able to truly guarantee brand safety. Inevitably, ads will end up alongside controversial videos.

Case in point, in March — just a month after YouTube was accredited for brand safety, an investigation found that ads for major brands including Disney+, Peloton, and more disturbingly, Nationwide Pet Insurance were showing up alongside videos of animal abuse. These weren’t fringe videos either, some had millions of views. And it’s not like animal abuse is a blind spot for YouTube’s filters, their policies explicitly prohibit videos containing the "infliction of unnecessary suffering or harm deliberately causing an animal distress."

Don’t get me wrong: advertising on YouTube certainly has its advantages. In fact, it’s practically impossible to match the scale and reach of YouTube elsewhere. If a brand can tolerate 1% of their ads appearing on harmful, obscene, hateful, or socially polarizing videos, then YouTube is a great place to advertise. But if a brand is concerned about showing up in the next damning brand safety investigation, then they might want to reconsider their video ad strategy.

If You Really Care About Brand Safety, Advertise With Trusted Publishers Directly

One simple workaround to YouTube’s brand safety problem is to only put channels that you, your agency, or another third party has validated to be safe for your brand on your inclusion list, and exclude everything else. For now, this is the only way to truly guarantee brand safety on YouTube. The thing is, with this approach you’re essentially reengineering YouTube to serve ads on videos professionally produced by independent media companies and publishers. Which begs the question: why not just buy ads from the publishers directly?

Buying ads from publishers on their external sites can expand the reach of campaigns beyond YouTube without compromising brand safety. Publishers may not have the scale of YouTube, but when it comes to brand safety, that works to their advantage. It’s much easier for a publisher to know which videos in their inventory are suitable for brands when they create or upload all the videos themselves. Unlike with YouTube and other user-generated content platforms, publishers have complete control over the videos they offer to advertisers. Their videos will also generally be higher quality than user-generated videos.

Advertising with publishers also has an advantage from a targeting perspective. Most publishers carve out a distinct voice, perspective and set of values that keeps their audience coming back. If your brand shares those values, advertising with these publishers will help you reach like-minded audiences and solidify the positive associations you want to make in the minds of your target audience. 

Brands Should Cater to Audiences That Share Their Same Values

At a time when consumers are paying more attention to brands’ affiliations and stances on controversial issues, it’s reckless for any brand to be indifferent to where their ads show up. Whether it’s an animal abuse video or a politically charged diatribe, showing up next to the wrong video can hurt a brand’s reputation, especially if it gets reported in the press. At the same time, being too restrictive with brand safety means reaching fewer people at a higher cost. 

Ultimately, striking the right balance between brand safety and reach will be different for every brand. However, if brands care deeply about brand safety, then they should proceed with caution with YouTube. While YouTube will surely continue to improve its brand safety controls and content moderation filters, it will always face the inherent challenge of regulating the unpredictable chaos of user-generated content at scale.

For this reason, it will always be safer to advertise with publishers who own and control their video inventory. If you truly care about brand safety or taking a stand on controversial topics, consider showing up with publishers that take the same stand or cater to audiences that share your values. Doing so will not only mitigate the risk of a brand safety crisis, it will strengthen the association between your brand and the values you stand for.