Q&A: Why are brands like Marks and Spencer pulling their advertising from Google?

Lynsey Barber
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Google is under pressure from advertisers (Source: Getty)

A newspaper investigation uncovered examples of several high profile brands being advertised against extremist content such as videos of a preacher banned from Britain and from white extremist David Duke insulting Jewish people.

The BBC, Channel 4, The Guardian as well as the Financial Conduct Authority, Transport for London and the Royal Navy, advertising for which is controlled by the government, pulled ads when alerted to the fact - something they were unaware of. A clearly unhappy government summoned the tech giant to explain itself on Friday and has asked it back in a week’s time to update it on its progress.

What brands have pulled their ads and what are they saying?

High street favourite Marks and Spencer is the latest brand to temporarily halt advertising following a string of others over the weekend. In addition to the brands mentioned above, banks HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland (which owns Natwest) and Lloyds pulled ads, as have McDonald’s, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Audi and L’Oreal.

Media agency Havas has also declined to book any YouTube or Google Display Network ads on behalf of its clients which include O2, Royal Mail and Dominos.

They are waiting for reassurances from Google until returning their cash to the platform. However, it must be said that not all brands have taken such steps, for various reasons. For example, one of the biggest advertisers in the UK, BT, said it is confident that none of its advertising appeared against such content.

“We take our responsibilities as an advertiser seriously and have a robust set of safeguards in place to make sure our adverts don’t appear on websites or content which may be dedicated to offensive themes,” a spokesperson told City A.M..

Keith Weed, marketing chief for Unilever and its household names such as Flora, Dove and Lynx, another one of the UK’s biggest spenders on advertising, said on Monday that it has not suspended ads and is “tracking the situation right now”.

“I’ll make a decision on what to do as and when because we have not yet been affected,” he said, adding that negotiations with any platform take place directly with the company and not in public.

GroupM, the group of WPP media agencies made up of Mediacom, Mindshare, MEC, Maxus and MSix, which buy ads on behalf of brands said that it is talking to Google and others to come up with solutions, but realistically warned that “a 100 per cent foolproof system may not be possible” and that brands must be aware of the potential risks, however slim: “It’s important that brands know this and proceed with caution – as well as with available safety tools."

"Digital advertising on platforms where content is user-generated and not curated has inherent brand safety risks. GroupM vigorously pursues every brand safety precaution and technology available to mitigate these risks, and we encourage all clients to make use of these tools.”

What does Google say?

In what might be considered bad timing for Google, its top European boss Matt Brittin was scheduled to speak in front of an audience at Advertising Week Europe on Monday, where top executives in the world of media and advertising gather.

He was forced to confront the topic and apologised admitting the company “can do better” but that the scale of the problem is “a handful of impressions, and pennies not pounds”.

“You have probably read stories recently about some brands appearing against content that they did not want to, and in the spotlight in particular has been YouTube. So I want to start by saying sorry. We apologise. When anything like that happens, we don’t want it to happen, you don’t want it to happen, and we take responsibility for it,” he said.

But he also faced stiff questioning from the press on why Google does not proactively look for bad content, something which he avoided answering several times.

He appeared frustrated that that two parts of the problem are being conflated - the controls advertisers have and which Brittin said were being simplified for clients, and Google’s efforts to remove illegal or offensive content.

So what is Google doing?

Brittin outlined three areas it's working on: policy, controls and enforcement.

It’s looking at its policy for defining what’s considered hate speech and inflammatory content, something that’s “not straightforward”. It said it found some advertisers have the controls but are not using them fully, so make this less complicated. And, it will also take action on enforcing content which is flagged. “We can go further, and faster and expedite things more in that respect,” said Brittin.

What do analysts and experts say?

Brian Wieser of Pivotal research downgraded his target share price for Google from $970 to $950 per share in light of the “serious issues in the UK with brand safety issues, which has global repercussions”.

John Mew, UK chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), which represents the online advertising industry said: "Although the scale of the issue may not be as big as is being portrayed, the IAB believes even one ad placed against inappropriate content is unacceptable.”

“The focus is now on the speed and style of response and there’s already been commitment from players such as Google to tackle this. In the meantime, the IAB reiterates the need for brands to select media placement just as carefully as they craft their advertisements and we'll continue to promote the tools available to brands to help them, such as the JICWEBS/DTSG signatories list of verified platforms to help minimise ad misplacement.”

Haven’t we heard this before?

Yes we have, in various guises. This is the latest and most serious symptom of a deeper issue for tech companies.

Google, along with Twitter and Facebook last year faced the Home Affairs Select Committee to explain what action it was taking to counter extremism on its platforms.

The committee last week in a separate investigation and now headed up by Yvette Cooper, criticised the three firms for failing to do tackle the problem of extremist content, leaving the most ire for Google.

Cooper told the executive representing Google: “... your answers on how you're are implementing community standards do feel a bit of a joke and do not feel as if you're taking your own community standards seriously enough and playing even by your own rules in terms of what counts as hate crime and what should be removed."

The pressure of advertisers in recent days hits Google harder than those words, however, both commercially and reputationaly.

They have also faced criticism over their failure to tackle so-called fake news in recent months, another side to the same coin.

So what now?

Google will pursue its efforts to “do better”, of course, particularly when it comes to keeping its advertising clients safe from bad content and it will have to reassure those advertisers who have paused spending that it's fine to return.

But the larger question for all these technology companies is how -and if - it should control content that while not illegal, may be deemed inappropriate or unpalatable.

They insist they are not media companies and the internet is fundamentally an unregulated space. But, as WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell pointed out on Friday, Google "cannot masquerade as technology companies" while having the same responsibilities as any other media company.

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