Industry responds to Google's apology in brand safety row

Mercedes-Benz, Argos and Sandals ads: appeared on extremist content
Mercedes-Benz, Argos and Sandals ads: appeared on extremist content

Google's response to revelations that a series of major brands were inadvertently funding extremist content with their ads has received a cautious welcome.

Industry figures have warned that it only scratches the surface of the challenges facing advertisers in the digital space.

Matt Brittin, EMEA president at the tech giant, apologised to advertisers at Advertising Week Europe on Monday. He outlined steps the company is taking to reduce the chances of a repeat, after brands said they were suspending advertising with Google over the weekend.

Google later said it is hiring people to develop tools "to increase our capacity to review questionable content for advertising".

Robin O’Neill, digital managing director at Group M, said Brittin’s words were "positive statements" but did not get to the heart of the problem, which was Google’s "walled garden" model.

"The issue is we have no control over our client’s advertising," he said. "The major concern is there is no independent verification about where or to whom it is being delivered."

O’Neill added he expected the pressure of an ad boycott would lead to change, but it was hard to predict what form this would take. Google appeared to be unaware of the "time, effort and energy" media agencies put into brand safety, he said.

Despite his apology, Brittin played down the significance of ads appearing with extremist content, saying the money involved was "pennies, not pounds". This was missing the point, ISBA director-general Phil Smith said: "This is a problem, full stop. Whatever the budgets involved, it pales into insignificance when you consider the cost of the reputational damage to brands."

Recent changes in how we communicate have made the issue of reputation management particularly fraught, Chris Daly, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, said. "Since the whole impact of social media has hit the scene, the fact is that people can be maligning your brand and there’s nothing you can do about it."

This made it inevitable that brands would seek urgently to distance themselves from hate content, he added.

The results of a study of 200 UK adults support this ultra-cautious approach. Attest, which conducted the survey for Campaign, found 63% of respondents were less likely to buy a product if they knew it had appeared next to extremist content.

While Smith said Google should go further to protect advertisers, others argued for a broader view. Sharing a stage with Brittin, Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed warned against the industry "jumping on one issue at a time" and forgetting the importance of tackling ad fraud and viewability.

63% of respondents were less likely to buy a product if they knew it had appeared next to extremist content.

Sarah Golding, chief executive of CHI & Partners and incoming president of the IPA, said improving brand safety was a mission for the whole industry, adding, "Google is not solely the cause of the problem and won’t solely be the solution."

Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer and chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, said the saga raised a broader question for the industry to tackle.

"Media is never simply a pipe with which to deliver messages to consumers who are ready, willing and able to buy," he said. "All media creates a context for communications – for good or ill. I despair at the way the industry has forgotten the benefits of context. It has only just woken up to the downsides."

Advertiser exodus

Since The Times’ latest revelations that taxpayer-funded public bodies, including the UK government and Transport for London, were among the advertisers unwittingly funding extremists, brands have been rushing out of the door.

Both those bodies, along with L’Oréal, Channel 4, Sainsbury’s, Argos, the Guardian and the Financial Conduct Authority, responded to the revelations by pulling their ads from YouTube. They joined Jaguar Land Rover, Sandals Resorts, Marie Curie and Thompson Reuters, which had done so after the original Times story broke in February.

Later on Friday, Havas Media pulled its entire UK display media spend from Google and YouTube, taking clients including O2, Royal Mail, Domino’s and Hyundai Kia.

McDonald’s, Audi and Tesco joined the movement on Saturday, with a trio of banks – RBS, HSBC and Lloyds – and then Marks & Spencer later following suit. As Campaign went to press, Vodafone and Sky were also considering pulling their ads.

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