AT&T and others, unhappy about extremist videos, are pulling ads from Google

Google has vowed an overhaul of its practices after major advertisers threatened to pull their business appearing next to 'hate talk' videos on Google's YouTube site.

Richard Vogel/AP/File
AT&T, Verizon and several other major advertisers are suspending their marketing campaigns on Google's YouTube site after discovering their brands have been appearing alongside videos promoting terrorism and other unsavory subjects.

AT&T and Verizon have announced that they will pull their advertisements from YouTube and other Google platforms, lest they appear next to hateful or offensive web content.

Their decision to cut ties with the tech giant comes after a similar one last week by British advertising giant Havas UK – which, in turn, was preceded by a Times of London investigation that found ads for familiar brands appearing next to terrorist and neo-Nazi propaganda videos on YouTube.

"We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate," an AT&T spokesperson wrote to Business Insider. "Until Google can ensure this won’t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google’s non-search platforms.”

With this decision, Verizon and AT&T – two of America’s biggest ad spenders – have joined a growing movement to stop online hate by cutting off its streams of ad revenue.

“It appears that technology has gotten ahead of the advertising industry’s checks and balances,” Laura Bryant, a spokesperson for Enterprise car rental, which has halted ad spending on YouTube, told The New York Times. “There is no doubt there are serious flaws that need to be addressed.”

The process that Google and other online advertisers use to place a company’s ad on a particular page is largely automated and takes milliseconds.

As a result, media design expert David Carroll told The Christian Science Monitor last week, “advertisers, brands, and publishers have no control over where these ads show up.” When Verizon’s or AT&T’s ads appear alongside a terrorist’s or white supremacist’s video, ad agencies “have to act defensively” to repair the damage.

Meanwhile, a Twitter activist group known as the Sleeping Giants is alerting companies when their ads appear on Breitbart, a website often accused of featuring “fake news” and offensive content. They’ve also taken credit for prompting Verizon and Johnson and Johnson to cut ties with YouTube. When the news broke, they tweeted, “this avalanche started with you snowflakes.”

While this decision may further vindicate these activists, it’s also increasing pressure on Google to change the advertising model that makes the Sleeping Giants’ work necessary in the first place.

In a blog post published Tuesday, Google’s chief business officer, Philipp Schindler, acknowledged that, “Recently, we had a number of cases where brands’ ads appeared on content that was not aligned with their values....That’s why we've been conducting an extensive review of our advertising policies and tools.”

He went on to promise that Google would set tougher ad policies in the near future, and give advertisers and agencies greater transparency and control over where their ads are placed.

It’s too early to tell how these policies will work and if they’ll keep familiar brands from popping up next to hateful content. But media industry analyst Brian Wieser thinks that Google – which claims more than 30 percent of global online ad revenue and gets 90 percent of its own revenue from ads – has a major incentive to solve the problem.

“Eventually, they’ll respond appropriately,” he told The New York Times. “They’re not going to just see a significant business go away.”

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