As YouTube rolls out new fixes to purge pedophile comments from videos, many brands are still withholding ad dollars until they see even more progress being made to stop all the objectionable activity on the platform.
On Thursday, YouTube announced it would disable comments on videos that feature "younger minors" and on select videos that show "older minors," depending on the subject matter. YouTube, owned by Google, implemented the new guidelines in light of reports that revealed pedophiles were coordinating in the comment sections of videos that featured children. The videos were mostly innocuous, but the commenters were sexualizing the subjects and sharing links to child pornography.
That set off a brand boycott that included AT&T, Disney, Epic Games and others. YouTube has been reaching out to top ad agencies and brands over the past week to reassure them it can maintain a safe environment for their commercials.
One digital ad executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says YouTube's promises ring hollow, however, given this latest flare up is just one of many brand safety failures in the past two years. In 2017, YouTube faced a similar brand boycott when ads were found running on videos featuring extremist and terrorist-inspired subjects.
About 10 brands that work with the agency have frozen spending with YouTube in the wake of the comments, but the agency executive says YouTube's latest measures are still insufficient to recommend returning to the platform.
"Google makes selling YouTube such a top priority," the agency executive says. "But they are disingenuous, and not protecting brands. These fixes should have been done years ago."
YouTube has offered half-measures for brands, the executive says. For instance, YouTube is telling some brands to categorize ads as "alcohol" (even if the company is not an alcohol brand), that way it tricks the automated ad system into avoiding videos with themes that appeal to children and families. Alcohol sponsors can only show ads to people older than 21, which means they mostly don't run on the kinds of videos afflicted by the pedophile comments. "What, is every brand supposed to reclassify as liquor?" the exec says.
YouTube declined to comment on its discussions with Madison Avenue, but it did post its new policies online, outlining the steps it has taken to counteract bad comments.
"Over the past week, we've been taking a number of steps to better protect children and families, including suspending comments on tens of millions of videos," a YouTube spokeswoman said in a statement. "Now, we will begin suspending comments on most videos that feature minors, with the exception of a small number of channels that actively moderate their comments and take additional steps to protect children. We understand that comments are an important way creators build and connect with their audiences, we also know that this is the right thing to do to protect the YouTube community."
YouTube's advertiser revolt comes at a sensitive time for the company, as it gets ready for the yearly Newfronts, when digital publishers look to steal ad dollars from traditional TV networks. YouTube typically uses its presentation to showcase the highest-quality programming on the service. Advertisers are encouraged to buy the ad inventory in the premium shows, helping them avoid the uncertainty of buying inventory in the less controlled ad auctions.
Some advertisers say it feels like YouTube is profiting off its offensive videos if the only way to be sure to avoid that type of content is to join the upfronts.
"It is [gutsy] of YouTube," says a digital agency executive, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "Brands are fleeing to safety, and now they can charge more to provide it."
YouTube competitors like Facebook and Hulu are sure to try to take advantage of its wounded position. In fact, Facebook is already meeting with top agencies about its ad offering through Watch, the YouTube video rival with shows from Jada Pinkett Smith, Lavar Ball, Elizabeth Olsen and other celebs and TV networks.
This week, Facebook has been promoting an ad program it launched late last year but recently named Showcase, which lets advertisers run against a select lineup of the highly produced shows in Watch.
However, advertisers are also suspicious of Facebook, which has faced its own content crises. A third ad executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, who recently met with Facebook salespeople about Watch, says they did not mention YouTube's problems by name in their pitch.
"They don't have enough confidence in their own controls to make fun of anyone at this point," the executive says.