Amid an Advertiser Exodus, Even YouTube’s Own Ads Are Running on Vile Content

An embarrassing sign of the problem's breadth

To cap off a week of companies like AT&T, Verizon and Johnson & Johnson pulling their ad dollars from YouTube due to placement around offensive videos on the platform, it was shown today that not even YouTube’s own brand is safe from the problem.

On Friday afternoon, Wall Street Journal reporter Jack Nicas tweeted a screenshot of an ad for a YouTube Red original movie appearing as pre-roll on a user-submitted video called “Michelle Obama Dancing to Alabama Ni**er.” The revelation came moments after Nicas tweeted that Walmart, Pepsi Co. and Starbucks are among more advertisers that had either suspended or pulled their spend.

Asked by Adweek about its own YouTube Red ads appearing on content with a racist term in the title, the network declined to comment except to say that it is working on addressing advertiser concerns.

“We don’t comment on individual videos but as announced, we’ve begun an extensive review of our advertising policies and have made a public commitment to put in place changes that give brands more control over where their ads appear,” a YouTube spokesperson said via email. “While we recognize that no system will be 100 percent perfect, we believe these major steps will further safeguard our advertisers’ brands and we are committed to being vigilant and continuing to improve over time.”

Yet such a damaging mix of news represents a brouhaha several days in the making, and things appear to have reached fever pitch.

“There is no more important asset for a marketer than the brand,” Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), said in a statement addressing YouTube’s issues earlier today. “Brands are the basis for marketers’ relationships with consumers and customers. Brand value, brand equity and brand loyalty are all treasured assets that we, as marketers, are entrusted to build, nurture, grow and strengthen. That is our essential role. Anything that disrupts, disturbs or threatens consumer and customer relationships—relationships based on trust and positive experiences—should be avoided at all costs.”

On Wednesday, AT&T, Verizon and Johnson & Johnson all pulled their ad spend from YouTube over concerns that their ads were appearing alongside controversial content including clips that promoted ISIS and racism. After Havas UK suspended its spend last week, Google issued a blog post promising advertisers more controls on where their ads appeared.

“The YouTube team is taking a hard look at our existing community guidelines to determine what content is allowed on the platform—not just what content can be monetized,” wrote YouTube’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler.

Still, removing thousands of ads from YouTube videos is complex because of Google’s automated system, and concerns about such user-generated content have been bubbling for years.

As another example, Adweek spotted Netflix running a 15-second pre-roll for its upcoming series “13 Reasons Why” before clips from controversial YouTube star PewDiePie, who was recently dropped from Google Preferred and Maker Studios after making anti-Semitic statements in his videos. A rep from Netflix did not respond to an email asking about the ad buy.

“This is not a new topic,” said David Cohen, North American president of IPG’s strategic global media unit Magna. “I’ve been talking about brand safety in the digital space for 20 years.”

Toronto-based advertising journalist Josh Kolm, news editor at Strategy Magazine, also used Twitter today to highlight the extent of major brand advertisements appearing on YouTube in Canada: