Google still scrambling for solutions after Johnson & Johnson, others depart YouTube advertising

Google is working overtime to reassure advertisers, including healthcare and pharma marketers, that its YouTube platform is safe. Its latest move will remove YouTube ads from any video channel that has not received at least 10,000 total views.

From offering third-party tools, teaching computers to be offended and even recharacterizing the problems as “very small,” Google has been scrambling to institute brand safety measures and spin the narrative after dozens of advertisers, including Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, said they would freeze spending on YouTube. The ad defections came last month after media reports that ads were being placed next to offensive content.

Since then, J&J has taken down a statement on its website about its YouTube suspension that initially said the company "take(s) this matter very seriously and will continue to take every measure to ensure our brand advertising is consistent with our brand values." Last week, J&J reinstated advertising “in select countries” after Google began implementing some of the new tools for better brand protection, CNN reported.

The original backlash occurred after reports of specific instances in which branded ads appeared next to extremist and offensive content, such as a L’Oreal campaign running after a U.K.-banned hate preacher’s speeches and a Royal Air Force ad on anti-semitic rant videos, as reported by The Times of London. The Wall Street Journal followed with even more examples. That led to consumer advertising heavy-hitters AT&T, Walmart, General Motors and Pepsi pulling ads and freezing spending on YouTube and Google display ads.

Healthcare brands "aren’t completely backing away from Google," though, Tina Breithaupt, vice president of media services at Intouch Solutions, said via email. "We are taking a step back and are auditing campaigns and the various safeguards of all Google platforms due to brand safety issues recently surfacing across industries. … We need to identify what went wrong and ensure it doesn’t happen for any of our brands.”

Pharma is particularly sensitive to the perception of any impropriety because of strict guidelines in the industry and an overarching marketing cautiousness that's not present in most other industries.

“As pharma marketers, we hold our partners accountable for strict safety guidelines," Breithaupt said. "Google is a tech company selling ad space and because of that they need to be held to the same strict safety standards that all of our publishers are held to. Brand safety and transparency are standards in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Some have pointed to the simmering content and placement issue as emblematic of the problems with accountability and accurate tracking of online advertising that is often placed by software through programmatic ad buys.

The Association of National Advertisers issued a statement supporting all its brand members, saying, in part, “We join the ecosystem in calling upon all digital advertising platforms to take the necessary steps to guarantee the safety and reputations of our brands …The current crisis is representative of the issues that ANA—and others—have raised with respect to fraud and risk, reduced transparency, suboptimum measurement and nebulous productivity. A dearth of trust and a need for verification lie at the heart of these problems.”