Monday 27 January 2020

Adrian Weckler: Advertisers will be back despite Google boycott

Stock image
Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Last week, a number of ad agencies announced a boycott of Google's YouTube channel over client ads appearing alongside extremist content.

But is it all for show? Ad agencies need to demonstrate to their clients why they deserve a 15pc cut in an age when a growing percentage of advertising is based on self-service online forms.

They were once the travel agents of the marketing industry. But while they still exert considerable creative expertise, they now upload ad content to Facebook or Google the same way anyone would.

Just in case anyone starts questioning that, they need to remind clients as to why they're there. So they have seized on reports of a small number of ads appearing in extremist YouTube videos.

They didn't even pull ads from the biggest part of Google's ad ecosystem, which is search. They contained it to YouTube and Google Display Network.

For what it's worth, the agencies have some strong, valid complaints about the way Google is set up. In some clear cases, advertisers undoubtedly hand over money for their ads to wrongly appear alongside terrorist or homophobic videos. One ironic example shows an Isis recruitment video with a Guardian ad asking for €5 per month to join its club.

It's entirely fair to call this a breach of the advertising bargain. If it was my business who'd paid for those ads, I'd be fuming. I may even look for my money back.

The monetary amounts involved aren't entirely trivial, either.

The homophobic US cleric Steven Anderson, who described the massacre of 50 people at a gay nightclub in Florida as "good news" and who has been banned from travelling to the UK, is estimated to have made over €50,000 from ads appearing against his 30 million YouTube video views. Advertisers inadvertently caught include Nissan and L'Oreal.

Another extremist banned from the UK is the Egyptian cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim. With videos inciting followers to commit terrorist acts, he has made tens of thousands from YouTube ads.

As for Google's response to the controversy, it is only half-answering the criticism with minor concessions.

The tech giant has committed merely to non-specific reviews of its systems and a vague promise to hire more people (without saying how many).

None of its top brass seems unduly panicked by the advertiser revolt. And why should they be? If the agencies meant business, they'd pull ads from the search side of Google's ad platform to show it. Instead, it's a fair bet that they will swallow whatever it is Google comes up with and return to the status quo in a few weeks' time.

After all, what are advertisers going to do? Not advertise with Google?

Complicating this row is the number of media companies piling in on the issue to let off steam after years of resentment at what they see as Google's encroachment into their commercial territory.

The crudest example of this was The Daily Mail's front page story last Thursday, a cooked-up yarn about how easy it is to use Google search for instructions on how to use cars as terrorist accessories. This, the paper argued, proved that Google itself is a threat to security (and not just the Mail's online advertising ambitions).

Other criticisms of Google bring up more fundamental questions about the extent to which companies are expected to choose sides in cultural conflicts.

In the case of the extremist Egyptian cleric Wagdi Ghoneim, for example, Google pulled advertising from his videos seen in the UK, but not his videos seen in the US.

This, critics say, shows a level of amoral corporate greed: Google is apparently prepared to monetise extremist videos in countries where it can get away with it.

This is a pretty harsh critique, though. As ugly as Ghoneim's speeches are, the US has a very different standard for protecting freedom of speech.

What's more, whether we like it or not, there are other countries in which Ghoneim is considered as merely controversial, not outrageous (although he is also banned from Canada and Switzerland).

Is Google supposed to suspend its trade in these countries purely according to UK (or even US) cultural sensitivities?

Many might argue that this is exactly what Google should do, that it should be 'on side' with certain cultural values.

To the extent that it won't allow beheading or rape videos anywhere on its service, it probably is.

But there are thousands of more marginal cases. We tend to think of Google as an American or western company. But it's really a global utility. What it displays (or commercialises) in other countries may not always fit perfectly with what we think is the correct moral position in our time and place.

Since news of the first advertiser boycott emerged, Google has lost around €20bn - or 4pc - of its market value.

But let nobody kid themselves. Whatever Google decides to do, or not do, those advertisers will be back.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business