It’s impossible for YouTube to be brand safe—advertisers must look elsewhere


After the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist with more than 2 million YouTube followers, posted a video claiming the tragedy was a hoax and that student anti-gun activists were actors. What Jones said on YouTube is disgusting, but as CNN discovered, it was also ad-supported.

Brand safety incidents like this are shockingly common on YouTube. Last November, several leading brands froze their YouTube buys after revelations of predatory comments on children’s videos. Earlier that month, The New York Times reported on the proliferation of YouTube videos that depicted popular children characters like Spider-Man and Elsa of Frozen engaging in acts with adult themes; other videos depicted acts of violence. And then there are YouTube content creators like Logan Paul, who was suspended by YouTube for a “pattern of behavior” that included repeated depictions of animal cruelty and suicide; YouTube reinstated Paul less than a month later.

These incidents have driven large CPG marketers to pull out from low-quality content, including social content, and re-invest in high-quality content, created and distributed by well-known media brands. But what about advertisers without Fortune 500 budgets? For SMBs and startups, brand safety is critical because smaller organizations lack the resources to police media buys on platforms like YouTube, and more importantly, they know that a single social media disaster can sink a business.

Why can’t advertisers trust YouTube to police itself?

Last year, as advertisers ran from YouTube, the company insisted that AI solutions were more effective than humans at identifying inappropriate content. This year, YouTube has changed its tune and decided to hire 10,000 humans to crack down on inappropriate content. YouTube is right about the need to put humans in the loop but adding staff won’t make YouTube brand safe.

One reason YouTube can never fully be brand safe is that there’s an intractable tension between an ad-supported model and an open platform. Advertisers may think that their dollars can force YouTube to make changes, but that’s true only to a point. At the end of the day, YouTube’s viability depends on openness. Under that model, anyone can say anything, and while there’s plenty to admire about YouTube’s commitment to free speech, there’s no reason advertisers should be asked to pay the price for carrying offensive content.

Where can advertisers go for safety?

For advertisers, the appeal of YouTube was supposed to be a blend of digital targeting capabilities with televisionlike content. Unfortunately, YouTube content doesn’t compare in quality with a well-produced sitcom or drama, or with the experience of live sports. Such content also comes with the added benefit of being primarily produced by the media brands we know and trust.

But as consumers opt for the convenience of accessing TV via streaming devices, owners of premium content are embracing Connected TV (CTV). This gives advertisers of all sizes the best of both worlds: known high-quality content plus digital targeting capabilities. If an advertiser wants nothing to do with politics, for example, it can allocate its Connected TV budget to lifestyle channels like HGTV or Bravo, or sports networks like ESPN or FS1. The content on those channels is safe for brands because television is a closed, finite platform, which means advertisers can manually inspect content before they buy so they know what they’re getting.

Is Connected TV ready for prime-time?

In a word, yes. The numbers, however, can be deceiving. While programmatic media buying is only expected to reach 5 percent of the total TV spend by 2019, according to an eMarketer report; you should also keep in mind that 168 million Americans watched Connected TV in 2017, with the number of household Connected TV streaming devices topping 70M last year. In other words, the audience is already there, so, naturally, advertising investment is quickly following it, and will be driving enormous growth over the next years.

The question for advertisers, however, is not whether CTV is a viable channel (it is). Instead, the question is how to reach television audiences in a multichannel world? Linear television doesn’t allow for household level targeting, making it difficult to align digital and mobile with traditional TV buys—no matter how big the media budget is. But YouTube suffers from the exact opposite problem, because it’s not TV, and therefore not one of the highly desirable closed media platforms, that advertisers look into, for brand safety.