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Simmering dissatisfaction with the ability of major ad platforms to prevent advertising from appearing alongside controversial content has reached a boil in the UK. In the past week The Guardian became the latest domestic news organization to pull advertising from the likes of Google and YouTube over the issue, and the UK’s government has begun doing the same. Will consumer brands be next?
The issue of brand safety became front page news in the UK last month when an investigation by The Times of London highlighted the extent to which digital advertisers from the UK were “unwittingly funding extremists,” thanks to ads appearing alongside controversial content—possibly as an unintended consequence of programmatic ad serving methods.
So far, news-related brands have been the most active—or at least the most vocal—when it comes to making digital ad platforms feel the depths of their displeasure by way of pared back investment. Brands from other sectors have been largely quiet on the subject, but recent studies have shown the issue of brand safety hasn’t been especially pressing among UK digital advertisers collectively.
As recently as December 2016, a survey of 120 UK digital advertising professionals by Integral Ad Science found 24% of respondents considered brand safety the most important aspect of media quality—a notable number, but behind viewability and ad fraud.
That response rate was considerably greater than the 3.9% of UK digital video ad buyers surveyed in September 2016 by Collective that said brand safety was their biggest barrier to spending more on digital video ads.
Of course, mainstream advertising appearing alongside controversial content isn’t easy to spot unless one goes looking for it—and it’s safe to assume mainstream advertisers don’t expect their target audiences to be doing so—so both brands and consumers have been largely ignorant of such pairings. But with the UK media increasingly focused on exposing those mismatches, more instances are bound to be found and backlashes against brands more likely. It’ll be little surprise to see levels of concern rise if key players in the digital advertising system fail to act, or if their actions fail to curb the problem.
Google has the most to lose by doing nothing. In 2016, it was the UK’s largest recipient of UK digital ad investment, garnering nearly 42% of the total, according to eMarketer’s latest figures, and should remain so through at least 2019.
Responding to the company’s critics, Ronan Harris, managing director of Google UK, noted in a March 17 blog post that Google in 2016 removed “nearly 2 billion bad ads from our systems, removed over 100,000 publishers from our AdSense program, and prevented ads from serving on over 300 million YouTube videos.”
“However, with millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognize that we don’t always get it right,” he said. “In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetization policies. We promptly remove the ads in those instances, but we know we can and must do more.”
US paid media ad spending will grow steadily in 2017, on the heels of a strong 2016 boosted by the Rio Olympics and the presidential election. A focus on mobile will fuel growth, pushing total media spend to more than $206 billion this year—a moderate increase of 6.1%.
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