Rarely do I come to the defense of Google advertising, but having been in the industry for more than a decade, I have a strong knowledge of who is responsible for what on Google ads. Yes, Google transparency at the interest/category level is weak, but advertisers have tools to minimize and mitigate these scenarios. Failure to use them is the fault of the advertiser, not the platform.
This often leads to the battle of quality versus quantity. But it is more a matter of safety versus quantity.
When creating a Google Display Network or YouTube effort, most advertisers know what is acceptable for their brand to appear alongside, so they merely need to focus on that content.
Rather than go the route of “spray and pray,” which is often done with just peppering in a few interests or categories, one must take a granular approach. In the Google Display Network and YouTube, it's advisable to focus on managed placements. Advertisers should know which Web sites are reputable and not controversial for placements. The odds are that the advertiser is competent enough to decipher that NPR.org and Breitbart.com both get millions of impressions, but only one of them is considered a reputable and non-controversial new source -- or that in YouTube, a “Blippi” video may not be the best spot for an insurance ad to trigger on.
This approach can easily be overlaid with demographic information (age, gender, HHI, Parental Status), keywords, and remarketing lists.
Some "legwork" reveals that Google is transparent with the domain/video that an advertiser's ads are triggering on -- advertisers merely needs to hand select the domains/videos to target their ads to. The advertiser must be ever vigilant and check this data regularly. If questionable material comes up, the advertiser can immediately exclude it. It is crucial to take advantage of the ability to exclude sensitive content, in the settings prior to launch, as an additional safeguard.
If it's news to advertiser that it is possible to implement settings and targeting to protect their brand in this scenario, then shame on them. The reality is that basic AdWords knowledge allows any advertiser to place the appropriate parameters into their ad campaign. Here is a quick refresher on how to do so, once you log into AdWords, and navigate to the tab Display Network or Video Targeting (YouTube), then go to the subtab of “Placements.” Select “Where ads were shown” for YouTube, and for GDN it will show once you select the first tab. From here an advertiser can immediately begin excluding specific Web sites and videos from triggering your ads.
Although your ads are likely going to take a hit to some degree on volume, it is better for your brand safety and association to follow this approach than to not have these parameters in place.
To gain knowledge in these areas, advertisers should take the Google Display Tutorial and exam.
Blaming Google will only get you so far on this. At some point, advertisers need to step up and take things into their own hands.