YouTube’s Comments Section Is a Cesspool, but Advertisers Aren’t Going Anywhere

Agencies agree the platform hasn’t gotten bad enough to leave

For some, YouTube's many controversies are balanced out by its 192 mllion U.S. users.
Photo Illustration: Amber McAden; Source: Getty Images, Youtube

A YouTube livestream of a congressional hearing about white nationalism and online hate speech Tuesday was overrun with racist and anti-Semitic comments, illustrating the enormity of the giant video-hosting site’s inability to address organized hate on the platform.

The incident was another example of how much more YouTube has to do. Among the advertisers that line YouTube’s pockets, though, the incident prompted little more than a collective shrug.

Andy Rhode, director of media at Fallon, said none of the agency’s clients expressed concerns about comments overrunning the YouTube livestream Tuesday. Rhode, who did notice the issue, brought it up internally to determine how the agency should handle it.

Rhode said he wasn’t pleased with YouTube’s decision to disable comments without also denouncing their content, which he called “kind of a dangerous stance to take.”

Even so, Rhode will continue to direct his clients’ ad spend to YouTube.

“While our clients certainly don’t condone any of these comments, it’s frankly hard for us to tell our clients that we’re absolutely going to back away,” Rhode said. “It’s as close to TV as you’re getting right now. We understand the immediate value to them.”

Another YouTube advertiser put it more bluntly.

“Who cares about comments when big brands are running 90% of their ads as preroll?” the advertiser, who requested anonymity to prevent backlash from Google, said.

For some agencies, YouTube’s many controversies haven’t been enough to prompt them to say goodbye to the site, which had 192 million U.S. users by the end of 2018, according to eMarketer. Consumers seem perfectly content on the platform, too, according to a recent Pew study that showed more than 70% of U.S. adults used the site in 2018 and 2019.

That scale, plus widespread reach, a plethora of targeting opportunities and high-quality video with a dedicated viewership means advertisers are willing to stick it out, several of them told Adweek. Indeed, advertiser spend on the platform is growing. YouTube’s total ad revenue in the U.S. reached $4.6 billion in 2018, a nearly 19 percent increase from the previous year’s $3.88 billion, according to eMarketer.

“For the cost and for the scale, it’s hard to beat depending on the audience you are trying to reach,” said one media agency source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to risk business relationships with Google. “They have a lot of scale, especially for younger audiences. If you’re trying to do preroll, they have good ads. It’s still an attractive place for people to be from that perspective.”

Paul Verna, senior analyst at eMarketer specializing in the digital industry, said he’s not surprised. As long as it’s profitable, Verna posited, advertisers will stay put.

Much of the focus on YouTube’s approach to cracking down on extremism and hate has centered on the contents of the videos. Major advertisers have twice pulled ads from the site over concerns about extremist content their ads have run in front of, but they have always quietly returned.

Concern over the comments section in particular has only recently come into focus. Earlier this year, advertisers staged a brief exodus after a YouTube personality demonstrated that a pedophile ring was using YouTube comments to direct those viewers to portions of videos depicting minors.

YouTube has taken some steps to address concerns. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said more than 10,000 content moderators would manually aid the platform’s moderation efforts by the end of 2018, and the platform tweaked its algorithm to no longer push users toward extremist content. After the advertiser exodus this year, YouTube disabled comments on most videos that contained minors and said it was speeding up the rollout of an updated comments classifier.

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