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.

A spokesperson for YouTube declined to comment further on how the company was addressing comment moderation other than to point to a company statement from February.

It’s only in recent months that agencies have begun to reckon with YouTube’s comments section. Rhode has tried to steer clients toward safer content by working with YouTube Preferred, which, he said, attracts fewer bad comments. But there’s no easy way to protect against offensive or brand-tarnishing content without avoiding the platform or turning off comments entirely.

“Things happen so fast, and they can escalate so quickly,” Rhode said. “Everything’s great one second, and then suddenly, one commenter says something, and it absolutely catches fire in the comments section. There’s nothing you can really do in this case. You can’t just proactively shut down the comments. You don’t want to do that. That’s not who you want to be.”

Michael Bienstock, CEO of influencer agency Semaphore, said he recognizes the depth of the problem when it comes to weeding out hateful comments. One major hurdle: finding and flagging the bad apples from the 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.

“It’s pretty easy to leave a comment; it’s pretty anonymous, and anybody can say anything,” said Bienstock, who is not pulling YouTube spend. “Thanks to dummy email accounts, people can even get around an account ban.  … I’m sure there’s some very smart people in the room trying to figure out how to get ahead of this problem.”

Overall, clients are still primarily concerned about the content that their ads run in front of, rather than the comments below it, Rhode and another agency source said. There’s a recognition that user-generated comments pose a substantial moderating challenge that’s not specific to YouTube.

“The general hostility and negativity around comments across the entire internet is pretty well understood,” the media agency source said, “and I don’t think that’s as a big a deal to clients.”

Advertisers say they’re aware of the laser focus on YouTube and on the brands that advertise on the site, and they say they are willing to consider other options like over-the-top streaming services or video on demand—if only they provide the same business benefits YouTube does. Even though spend hasn’t changed, the conversation is happening regularly, they said.

“There’s a general uneasiness around places like YouTube,” the media agency source said, adding, “There’s an underlying concern about whether it’s creating an ecosystem that is unhealthy, not just for brands but for society.”

Rhode said his agency is paying close attention to YouTube’s next moves, and that he has raised his expectations, particularly following the steps other major social media players have taken. The ongoing conversation is about “whether we’re comfortable being on those platforms at all,” he said.

Verna said he wondered when the other shoe would drop for ad agencies.

“You do wonder what it will take to get them to leave,” he said. “Despite all of its problems, there’s something about it that keeps drawing us back.”

@swodinsky Shoshana Wodinsky is Adweek's platforms reporter, where she covers the financial and societal impacts of major social networks. She was previously a tech reporter for The Verge and NBC News.
@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.