Digital Advertising $h*tstorm Hits Europe

Photo by ra2studio

I reported last week that Procter & Gamble had thrown down the gauntlet and demanded that the online advertising ecosystem needs to improve this year.  By the weekend, advertisers in Europe had gone even further with, for instance, Havas Group U.K. suspending all ad buying on Google and YouTube, followed by more UK advertisers pulling their business as of yesterday.  “A slew of big-name companies, advertising firms and government departments have either pulled their adverts from Google and its YouTube video site or are considering whether to do so, with media giant Sky, telecoms group Vodafone and a trio of banks adding their names to a growing list over the weekend,” reports Rob Davies for The Guardian.

Fed up with brand ads being linked to unpalatable content like hate speech or outright terrorist videos, the advertiser exodus grew dramatically by week’s end; and although I have seen no reports of U.S. advertisers suspending their activity yet, they’re certainly paying attention. Lindsay Stein for AdAge writes, “WPP CEO Martin Sorell said in a statement that the agency giant and its media buying arm GroupM have believe [sic] Google, Facebook and others have the same responsibility to safeguard advertisers as any media company. ‘They cannot masquerade as technology companies, particularly when they place advertisements.’”

GroupM announced in September 2015 that it would require all of its partners to become TAG certified, a declaration echoed by Marc Prichard, Chief Brand Officer for P&G this past January.  TAG is a voluntary, ad-industry initiative designed to keep major, brand advertising off untrustworthy and illegal sites, including piracy sites that host almost exclusively infringing content.

Now that advertisers are actually pulling business in response to the platforms’ inability to limit the amount of illegal and malicious content on their sites, we can expect to see one of two outcomes:   either Google, Facebook, et al will discover new capacities for controlling content on their sites; or the advertisers will seriously reevaluate their investment in digital. Odds are, we’ll some combination of the two since many of the problems described by the advertisers go beyond the issue of toxic material and beg broader questions about overall value for their brands.

Either way, this is likely to be a big story for the Web this year, and copyright holders are going to be keenly interested in watching what happens. For instance, when it comes to mitigating infringement on a site like YouTube, the general rebuttals are “free speech” and “innovation”—two vague answers that I doubt will mollify advertisers asking, What have you done with my money?  The rights holders have always known these answers are nonsense, so we’ll see what happens when the platforms actually stand to lose rather than gain revenue from their inaction.

Yes, it’s a challenge.  A huge volume is uploaded daily, and Google doesn’t want to flag any content that doesn’t deserve it.  In fact, as MIT Technology Review reports, even a product called Perspective that Google designed for publishers to weed out “toxic” comments from their pages doesn’t seem to work very well. So, nobody should pretend the task is easy.  Still, the free speech rhetoric is oversold by Google and over-bought by consumers who seem to believe that web platforms are driven by constitutional principles rather than marketing dollars.

As noted in the past, these corporate-owned platforms don’t really have First Amendment responsibilities.  They can accept or reject any kind of content they choose, and I think we’re about to see that they’re going to choose what’s good for their real customers—the ones paying them billions of dollars.  As CNN reports today, Google executive Matt Brittin has publicly apologized to the advertisers and says that the company can and must do better.

This acute pressure from advertisers comes at a time when the creative community is stepping up its pressure on Congress to fix the flaws in the DMCA that inadvertently create incentives for platforms to turn a blind eye to copyright infringement.  And it’s a safe bet that if the major advertisers can induce the platforms to weed out toxic content, the major rights holders are likely to insist that parallel measures can be taken to limit the volume of infringing material on these otherwise legal sites. After all, the advertisers have stated their displeasure with inadvertently supporting any criminal activity, including infringement, particularly since many of the advertisers are themselves major rights holders.

I will add that I’ve personally been a skeptic about many digital advertising promises since first encountering them in the days of Web 1.0. I never believed, for instance, that the kind of “targeting” people used to talk about was either achievable or desirable. It’s been nearly 20 years since those meetings, and let me guess how you feel when you see one of those ads on Facebook for a product you just bought:  creeped-out and cynical? Yep. Me too. But that’s a topic for another post.

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