Google and Facebook broke a promise to advertisers

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  • Tech platforms like Google and Facebook love to boast about being "open." Too often that means they're a free for all.
  • In 2017, it became clear that the open nature of these giants means they can't possibly keep track of what kind of content appears on their platforms.
  • Media selling is, at its heart, about making a promise. If you buy an ad in GQ, the inherent promise is that you'll reach style-conscious men and be surrounded by content that reflects that.
  • But increasingly, when advertising with the world's largest tech outlets, you don't know what you're going to get. These platforms need to grow up and take more responsibility - or risk harsh backlash.


Tech platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, have long touted that they are "open." Anyone with an internet connection can upload a video or an essay or some knee-jerk response to some news, and place their ideas in front of potentially millions of people.

And, of course, the world is now full of examples of folks who've done this quite successfully - showcasing the "anybody can do it" optimism that's plastered across Silicon Valley. But those in the media and advertising world see things very differently. Since late 2016, viewers of Google's YouTube have been watching more than 1 billion hours of video a day.

That eye-popping stat was disclosed in a Wall Street Journal article in February. The story pinned the huge viewership to Google's use of artificial intelligence to recommend videos, and included boasts from Google executives about the fact that - because YouTube is open to anybody - 400 hours of video are uploaded to it each minute. That's equivalent to 65 years of video a day.

YouTube was very proud of that number at the start of the year.

Lately, it's hard to find that stat listed on their press site (it used to be listed prominently). It's not a good brag anymore, after it became apparent that some of those videos include ISIS propaganda or pedophilia promotion. It became apparent this year that the policing of 65 years worth of video a day is entirely unmanageable even by the most amazing computer.

The conversation became about 'brand safety' in 2017

The "open" problem is present for Twitter (see abusive trolls) and Facebook (fake news, ruble-paying Russians) also. But YouTube has found itself at the center of this issue because those nasty videos and the ads that run before them can easily be screengrabbed or linked to. And those ads often equal money in the pocket of the producer of fake news or hate speech.

Taken together, the openness once touted by Google, Facebook, and Twitter has taken on a new, shall we say, less positive, meaning in the advertising world. The conversation there became about "brand safety," and based on the steady string of stories this year wherein Google or Facebook got caught running ads in an "unsafe" fashion, neither company has given the marketing world confidence it has a real handle on the monster challenge of policing massive open platforms.

YouTube will surely argue about how being open allowed for millions of unknown talents to showcase their talents and find fandom. And Twitter will likely talk about a need to provide voices an outlet, while Facebook will boast of connecting an unconnected world.

But how much longer will those noble missions pass muster when it comes to bottom-line business concerns? At a certain point, will advertisers demand that their ads be kept far from anything that hasn't been fully vetted, or else? That's the power clash to watch for in 2018.

Brands have heard 'I'm sorry' too many times

Sheryl Sandberg Facebook shrugPhilippe Wojazer/Reuters

For some reason, as digital marketing came of age, ad buyers and their marketing clients convinced themselves it was OK not to know exactly where their ads were running. "The web is too big," the argument went, "and people are spending time in hard-to-reach communities and niches, and we must take our messages to them."

We now know this theory was most built on faulty thinking.

Meanwhile, after embarrassment after embarrassment, advertisers acknowledge that where their ads appear on the web actually matters a lot. They don't want to be humiliated again.

Always bothered by Facebook's and Google's power, ad buyers and advertisers have become increasingly concerned when it comes to those tech giants' attitudes about being open and what kind of culpability that does or does not entail. Both companies have pledged numerous times to get better and do better going forward. And then more troubling stories emerge.

For instance, while ads next to racist and ISIS videos seem to be fairly isolated instances, the creepy kids' videos that BuzzFeed uncovered on YouTube had been building big followings and making money from ads for years. And Google didn't notice until reporters pointed it out.

Google says it has taken measures to address these challenges. The company has raised the minimum number of views a given channel must have to receive ad support, for example. And it deleted thousands of questionable kid-aimed channels, according to BuzzFeed.

Yet just this week the Times of London uncovered a group of pedophiles using YouTube to exploit kids. Another thing that was happening for a while right under Google's nose. Google told the Times that this activity violated its policies and that it is planning a forceful response.

The platforms use being 'open' as an excuse for not minding the store

home aloneFox

The persistence of the "open" problem is probably why TV still has an outsized share of ad budgets. Media selling is, at its heart, about making a promise. If you buy an ad in GQ, the inherent promise is that you'll reach stylish men and be surrounded by content that reflects that.

Similarly, if you run a commercial during Adult Swim, it will probably be mixed into some weird and edgy stuff that appeals to young men. But at least you know what you're getting into.

Increasingly, advertising on the world's biggest tech outlets is like a box of chocolates. You don't know what you're going to get.

Google and Facebook stick to their "We're not a media company" stance, even though they make all their money selling ads and invest in original shows. They use this "How can we know what's going on at all times?" excuse as a way to avoid full responsibility on their platforms that only further irks advertisers.

So far, advertisers have been talking a bigger game than their actions reflect. It's time for them to demand more. There's a big opportunity here for the right media partner or third party to play brand safety insurance provider for ad buyers.

And there's an opportunity for top marketing executives, like Procter & Gamble's chief brand officer, Marc Pritchard, to take a stand. Pritchard has given speech after speech urging the digital ad business to get its act together. Unless leaders like Pritchard threaten to hold back money from these platforms, only so much change will happen.

Otherwise they can just sit back and wait for the next embarrassing screengrab of their ad next to something that does real damage to their brands.

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