In the annals of idiotic internet "bros", Logan Paul (pictured, above) is destined to be little more than a footnote; a virtual speck on the largest ethical iceberg the ad industry has ever faced. The 22-year-old vlogger, who has 16 million subscribers, was on the receiving end of a global backlash after he uploaded a video detailing his trek into the Aokigahara "suicide woods" in Japan, where he found a man who had apparently recently hanged himself. He showed the body and filmed his own reaction. In the 24 hours before Paul removed the content, it received six million views and was featured on YouTube’s list of trending videos.
Paul was among the "gold star" influencers and part of the Google Preferred network, an advertising programme that connects channels with brand advertisers directly. The only reason advertising didn’t appear next to the above-mentioned video was because Paul had "demonetised" it himself. In the context of the marketing industry’s conversations surrounding "brand safety", Paul would have been pre-approved and whitelisted – the very definition of safe, and the ultimate posterboy for YouTube’s leaky ad platform.
The age of extremism
From The Times headline on "brands funding terrorism" to fears surrounding fake news, the sorry story of Paul is far from an isolated incident. One need look no further than a recent study by ex-Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot. He wrote a computer program to bring transparency to YouTube’s recommendation system, which he said showed a trend toward extreme content. This was disputed by YouTube, which said the videos evaluated did not "paint an accurate picture of what videos were recommended on YouTube… in the run-up to the US presidential election".
In the battle for attention, algorithms and editors, alike, have hit upon outrage as key for attracting eyeballs and therefore ad revenues. In this environment, advertisers and media agencies face a difficult question: as they seek the highest number of consumers at the lowest possible cost, have brands inadvertently been underpinning extreme content?
There’s a financial incentive to bend the truth – fake news, for example – to generate more interest
Dale Lovell, Adyoulike
Ronan Harris, managing director of Google UK and Ireland, rejects the suggestion that brands are facing an "age of extremism". He argues that tech companies are co-operating to prevent extremist content. He points to Google’s work with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism – a shared industry database that allows companies to create digital fingerprints for terrorist content – as an example of such endeavours.
Harris also emphasises the role of open platforms such as YouTube as a force for creativity and learning. "When we look at the major uses of technology from individuals, we see them using it to share positive and inspiring messages of all kinds," he says. "Barack Obama’s ‘It gets better’ message aimed at LGBT+ individuals was viewed over one million times on YouTube, and his tweet on diversity was liked over four million times.
"What this means for brands and advertisers is that there is an opportunity to engage with their customers around the positive messages and values that they represent and believe in."
A question of context
However, several brands and marketers are reappraising their approach to online ads. Procter & Gamble marketing chief Marc Pritchard’s much-lauded drive to clean up the digital ecosystem has been galvanising for the industry, while Keith Weed, his counterpart at Unilever, has warned a crisis of consumer confidence poses a threat to the fabric of the ad-funded web. At a grass-roots level, various brands and SMEs are making decisions to press the pause button when it comes to aspects of their social-media marketing activity.
Jamie Inman, head of planning at BMB, says that some of the agency’s clients do not advertise on YouTube because of brand-safety fears and the reputational risk. On the flipside, other clients, such as Rowse Honey, have put YouTube at the centre of their marketing. "The lens of brand reputation is important, but it is just a subplot to the larger existential crisis as to what these platforms are doing to society as a whole," he says.
The interesting shift for brands is the sheer scale and influence of the YouTube brand and seeming uncontrollability of the algorithm. As Inman puts it, succinctly: "It’s a fucking mess." He adds: "Seventy per cent of YouTube views come from its recommendation algorithm. It is hard to grasp from the outside the scale of the problem and its ultimate impact on society."
The beginning of the solution may start with getting to grips with this scale, but Inman argues that, as a society, we are bad at dealing with complex problems, whether that be climate change or the YouTube algorithm. "Today, we don’t have the answers in the face of large scale and unintended consequences," he says.
Bendelow explains: "The problem is the average brand advertiser, and probably the average media buyer, doesn’t truly know how it all works. It’s an enigmatic, constantly changing black box – part science and data, part ‘dark arts’ – where the eyeballs and cost per transaction are impressive, but people just don’t dare ask too many questions about how it’s achieved."
The argument that a platform like Facebook is essentially a civic space, with its own rules and regulations, is running out of steam. The "exhaust fumes" of social platforms, pervading almost every aspect of public life, are coming under the microscope.
Despite this mounting attention, Dan Hagen, chief strategy officer at Carat UK, argues that the ability to accurately police platforms of this scale is not currently viable. "Brands should probably understand that they are taking a risk that could put them in a bad light," he says.
Yet he does not believe algorithms are tacitly encouraging more extreme content. "There are always people who want to push an agenda, or desire certain content; they always have and always will find a way to get what they want or publish their agenda. Algorithms make it faster to publish, but also to find and intervene," he explains. "They accelerate the arms race, but I don’t think they create it – people do that."
However, Dale Lovell, co-founder and chief digital officer of native advertising platform Adyoulike, says that the financial motivation for content creators is heavily skewed toward generating a "hit". If something is shared or viewed a lot, traditionally, this means that algorithms start to "surface" this content more, creating more shares and views. It is a system that Lovell believes encourages content creators to push the boundaries: "There’s a financial incentive to bend the truth – fake news, for example – to generate more interest, or for video creators to go to more extremes."
Whether talking about extremist content or cute cat videos, for critics of YouTube this race is one to the bottom. It reflects an environment in which the power of context has either been dramatically downplayed or completely forgotten.
Heather Andrew, chief executive of market research agency Neuro-Insight, says that the rising concern over brand safety in digital media is symptomatic of a long-term tendency among marketers to underrate context versus content and audience size.
She points to research measuring subconscious brain response, which consistently demonstrates that context and content are intrinsically linked. "The brain and memory, in particular, work by association," she says. "When we store information in our memory, we file it away alongside emotional and contextual associations that accompany it. Brand advertising tends to exploit the link between memory and emotion – it’s the basis for creating emotional brand advertising, rather than just communicating an information message. Yet the corresponding role of context in media placement is often ignored."
According to Andrew, cases such as that of Logan Paul demonstrate a strong argument for quality over quantity in digital advertising and, specifically, illustrate the vital importance of context.
The influencer paradox
When it comes to context, many brands have lost their way. Like "content" before it, the term "influencer marketing" has quickly lost its meaning. All too many brands are guilty of having an influencer strategy that pays little attention to who the influencers are or who they are actually influencing.
Emilie Tabor, founding partner and chief marketer at influencer agency IMA, says: "Brands have learned that in this age of extremism they need to be extra careful with their ad placement and selection of influencers."
Paul isn’t the first influencer to go down in a blaze of infamy, she adds. Before him there was PewDiePie, who took a hit after posting videos with anti-semitic messages, while influencer marketing as a whole suffered from association with last year’s Fyre Festival, the doomed luxury music event endorsed by celebrities. In light of this, Tabor advises brands to undertake "intensive research to ensure that their values are in line with that of a certain influencer, draw up clear contracts, monitor their activity, or hire a specialist influencer marketing agency to protect their brand name".
In many ways, the problems highlighted by influencers who have come under fire for poor judgement and offensive content, represent an ongoing challenge in marketing that predates social media. From Tiger Woods to Lance Armstrong, brand partnerships are fraught with human frailty, but there is no question that, on social networks, brands are grappling with this frailty at an unprecedented scale.
Dr Jürgen Galler, Google’s former EMEA product director and chief executive of predictive data management company 1plusX, says the topic of content insecurity has been around since the web began, but programmatic advertising is not considering context. "Technology is not yet precise enough and certain cases are still slipping through the net," he adds. However, he believes that, rather than trying to fight "niche situations", brands need to focus on appearing in a positive environment.
Time well spent
Concerns over the impact of social media on our collective well-being is no longer confined to the Silicon Valley set. Jem Fawcus, group chief executive of Firefish, says that brands are facing up to a realisation that there is a significant downside to social media, and people are questioning their own use of the platforms. "Brands need to adopt the analytics and AI that can make the consumer experience seamless," he adds.
However, he believes that this must not be at the expense of humanity, because it has become more vital not just to brand experience, but also to addressing the culture of aggression and distortion online.
There is no question that technology platforms are ultimately responsible for policing the content on their sites. Nonetheless, the opportunity for marketing and media leaders to drive change by becoming answerable for where their advertising appears has never been greater.