YouTube, Janet Jackson And We've Been Here Before

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, August 4, 2017

In the past year, a number of well-known brands announced their intention to pull their advertising dollars off of major sites like YouTube and Facebook. This was primarily due to a select group of ads running next to offensive content. It’s been called the “problem with programmatic,” along with other catchy names capable of warming an advertiser’s heart. 

Slogans aside, the history of advertising shows that we’ve been here before. Marketers gnashing their teeth about the content with which their ads are is as old as advertising itself. 

However, each time we’ve come to an inflection point, content providers have taken the appropriate steps to ensure brand safety and address concerns, and there is no reason to suspect that this time will be any different.

Newspapers have been expected to ensure that ads are not insensitively placed on their spreads for decades. For example, many papers have rules against placing a razor ad next to an article about suicide. This isn’t a decision that was made hypothetically. The internet is full of troubling examples of misplaced ads, from ads for the movie “Man on a Ledge” placed next to a story about a glass pane falling from a skyscraper to fast food ads placed by articled about obesity.



While these types of incidents still happen occasionally, newspapers have generally accepted that advertisers have specific requirements, and have shifted to meet expectations. 

On television, perhaps the most famous brand safety moment occurred during one of TV’s most-famous events; Janet Jackson’s famous “wardrobe malfunction” exposed one of her breasts on live television for about half of a second during the 2004 Super Bowl. In the wake of the incident, rules were changed, safeguards were installed, and amendments made to prevent future episodes. A seven-second delay became commonplace for live sporting events, and brand advertisers seem to have moved beyond concerns about advertising on the Super Bowl (this year’s big game featured the most expensive advertising ever, while drawing more than 110 million viewers). 

That brings us to today. Facebook and YouTube are having their “wardrobe malfunction” moments, as advertisers threaten to pull ads due to a lack of brand safety. From here, it is incumbent on those companies to follow the lead of other media companies, and install the appropriate safeguards. 

Google is currently taking steps such as incorporating more control into the content by which brands are placed, while simultaneously layering in artificial intelligence technology to ensure brand safety. Similarly, Facebook is developing automatic tagging technologies, and in the meantime has assembled a team of 7,500 people to watch and monitor videos and posts for violent or criminal acts. 

Will this be enough. 

Like the Super Bowl, Facebook and Google represent the pinnacle of their particular medium; advertiser reaction to the steps those companies take will have long-lasting repercussions on the web marketing ecosystem. Various programmatic players, many of whom were happy to see a dent made in the duopoly, are actively waiting to see how these companies proceed, anxious to adopt the same best practices that re-entice advertisers. 

History shows us that, in terms of brand safety, we’re treading on common ground. Publishers and content providers of all types have made mistakes, taken appropriate steps to safeguard against future issues, and recovered their reputation and advertising revenues. The online advertising ecosystem needs to do the same, as all eyes point to the web’s biggest players and their approaches to solving the challenge. 

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