Channel 4 was shocked to learn last week that it was one of several brands running ads against extremist content on YouTube. Unfortunately for them, they had to learn from a reporter at a different publisher.
“We got a call from The Times last week. They said, ‘we saw your ads appear alongside neo-nazi, homophobic, and anti-Semitic videos, how do you feel about that?’” said Dan Brooke, Channel 4’s chief marketing and communications officer. “We immediately instructed all our ads to be pulled on the basis that it’s not a safe environment at the moment.”
Brooke, who said approximately 5 percent of Channel 4’s ad spend goes towards YouTube, often pre-roll ads for Channel 4’s shows, voices a feeling familiar to media companies during this latest furore around brand safety: “If this happened in established media then we would be crucified.”
Google, for its part, looks to be making good on its promises to raise the bar on ad policies, increase brand safety controls and improve transparency. We caught up with Brooke to talk about Google’s apology, funding extremist content and seeking compensation. The below is edited for clarity.
Do you know how long this has been going on?
I have no idea how long this has been going on. It’s totally unacceptable. Our ads have been appearing against content that is, at best, extremely offensive and, at worse, extraordinarily offensive to Channel 4’s core values. We’re a brand that champions people from different ethnic groups and different sexualities. Only a small percentage of our ads will be appearing next to those videos. I don’t really care if it’s 1 percent or 50 percent, any percent is bad.
So what do you do now?
We will be looking at that and if it’s appropriate to go back to Google and seek compensation for historic misdemeanours then we will be considering that carefully. I’m assuming this has been worse in the past.
But brand safety has been an issue for years.
I’m aware of the concept of it, but it took a journalist to draw our attention to the failure of the quality control system in this instance. We’re talking to everyone we work with to ask how it is this happened, the first people in that list is Google.
Was Google Europe president Matt Brittin’s apology yesterday —
It was wanting. First of all Google said last week they have strict procedures. All I can say is that they are not strict enough, a considerable number of examples have been found relatively easily, it would seem. Secondly, this idea of ‘it’s pennies not pounds,’ [the extent of impressions appearing next to unsafe content]. It’s clearly going to be running into many many many pounds when you add it up, you can tell that from the volume of advertisers — known to be high-spending advertisers — pulling spend from the platform.
What do you want to see from Google?
I can’t say exactly what conditions need to be met to satisfy us. What I do know is at the moment we are effectively buying a service from them, and we have certain very reasonable quality control expectations, many of which are explicitly specified, and they haven’t been met. That’s not good enough.
Would you like to see something more like a whitelist on YouTube content?
I’m not wild about the terms ‘whitelist’ and ‘blacklist’ because that implies white is good and black is bad, which, for separate diversity concerns, is not good terminology. I’ve said that to our media agency. We already have a list of approved sites, on YouTube it doesn’t work in that way.
The reaction from the whole industry has been quite extreme.
I think that’s justified. There’s two barrels to this: It’s not just that our ads are appearing alongside this content but because of the way the rev share system works, we’re actually funding the creators of these videos in the first place. That is unacceptable.
Is that why advertisers seem so shocked by this?
The shock is that you are made a commitment by a company who is not able to satisfy that, and they are a multi-billion dollar company that talk about the extent of resource put behind policing. But that’s their problem, that’s not my problem. If adequate control costs more money then doubtless that would be reflected in the prices we pay.
Is there anything else going on that’s fuelling this feeling of outrage?
The broader issue is that digital media giants have been growing incredibly rapidly and are having very significant impacts, some of them unintended, on the world. Facebook didn’t intend for fake news to be a feature of its platform. Google, despite its talk of freedom of speech, doesn’t want ISIS videos on YouTube. Nevertheless they are there, and the means by which they are generating revenue in both environments is causing a problem for advertising. It’s polluting democracy. These are multi-billion dollar companies and they are not taking enough responsibility for dealing with the consequences of their companies’ activity. It’s a step, but they need to be showing a much greater sense that they care.