YouTube’s Fine Line Between Brand Safety and Censorship

YouTubers were on the warpath again last week, this time over the apparent censorship of their right to monetize potentially offensive content. The hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty has become the rallying cry behind a wave of protests over the enforcement of measures aimed at making YouTube a safer environment for advertisers.
YouTube’s renewed vigor in terms of restricting monetization can be read as roundabout censorship, but it should also be looked at from a brand safety perspective. The policy clarification is a reminder that YouTube is a business that exists to make money and must ultimately address the needs of advertisers and brands. Creating a stable advertising environment is at the top of the company’s agenda. But where is the line between freedom of speech, censorship, and brand safety?

This isn’t the first time that YouTubers have been up in arms: the introduction of YouTube Red, licensing landgrabs, copyright conflicts – YouTube is a volatile, unpredictable place. And for advertisers, that’s a problem.
Philip DeFranco, a YouTuber with over 4.5 million subscribers, is at the center of the demonetization scandal. The video below has already received almost two million views and is a response to the explosion in media coverage that followed on from his original video about the issue. Another update on Monday clarifies things even further and bemoans the media response, but watch this for a good summary of what happened:

YouTube’s “advertiser-friendly content guidelines” are exhaustive, but unsurprising. Most advertisers are wary of being associated with any of the following, especially when they have only limited control over ad placement:

  • Sexually suggestive content, including partial nudity and sexual humor
  • Violence, including display of serious injury and events related to violent extremism
  • Inappropriate language, including harassment, profanity and vulgar language
  • Promotion of drugs and regulated substances, including selling, use and abuse of such items
  • Controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown


We’re not the first to point out that at first glance this is really about brand safety, not censorship.
However, DeFranco makes a valid point:

…if you really wanna hurt somebody, you hit em in the wallet. If you take away their money, you make the content that they’re making unsustainable and it’s just a slow death. It’s an eventual death. It’s an eventual shutting down. Philip DeFranco

YouTube can argue that it isn’t directly putting a muzzle on anyone, that the company is simply restricting their right to earn money from their content, but is that essentially the same thing as censorship?
YouTube’s decision about what types of content can be monetized will certainly affect the type of content that gets produced. This is of concern from a subtle censorship angle, but YouTube has to address the needs of the people who pump money into the platform – the same group that funds the free internet: the advertising industry.
Brands are touchy about context for good reason, both online and in the real world. From 26 of the most hilarious, unfortunate online ad placements to 27 Hilariously Misplaced Advertisements That Will Make You Face-Palm, lists of embarrassing ads are great clickbait.
But laughter may not be the worst result for a brand. Ad misplacement can turn dark very quickly, with video often offering the most disturbing potential for bad press. The Internet doesn’t forget and being associated with graphic violence is a major worry for advertisers:

Source: Integral Ad Science Q1 2016 Media Quality Report
Source: Integral Ad Science Q1 2016 Media Quality Report

This is not a new problem. There is the famous tale of how a GM ad ran alongside a report about the death of Princess Diana in a car crash. That was almost twenty years ago. Since then, advertisers have faced criticism for indirectly supporting violence, bullying and worse.
Advertisers have good reason to be protective of their brands. An ad placed next to controversial content is a gift to both online and print media, providing them with a shocking image and triggering immediate outrage in readers. Ad misplacement is an easy target and it can be difficult and expensive for a brand to recover, no matter what statements the press department issues after the fact.
So it isn’t surprising that advertisers have put pressure on Google – an advertising company – to enforce safeguards, especially when some serious money is flowing towards the more popular YouTubers.
Ultimately, YouTubers – and anyone who offers space for ads – need to realize that advertisers have valid concerns about where their ads appear. The new guidelines are heavily orientated towards self-censorship, with content creators being forced to think about their profits before shock value. For YouTubers with a lot of subscribers, sponsorship deals can be even more lucrative than advertising – even offline. So it isn’t necessarily the case that YouTube will transform into a safe, unthreatening environment. Controversial content can still –  within reason – be uploaded. It just can’t be directly monetized.
There may be a lost opportunity here when it comes to YouTube’s rather blunt and relatively unsophisticated application of its guidelines: some advertisers would be more than happy to be associated with incredibly controversial content, as long as it attracts eyeballs. Sponsorship might fill this role, but of course that won’t be of much help to anyone starting out and hoping to build up an audience and make some cash. YouTube might in time find a way to fine-tune its advertising controls to deal with this problem.
In fact, DeFranco’s latest video shows that he – and probably many other successful and savvy YouTubers – understand the issue:

As a businessman, I understand both sides of this. If you’re trying to sell makeup, you don’t want to have that next to some bomb going off on some kid. Philip DeFranco

Brand safety is sometimes used as a blanket term to include viewability and fraud, but at its heart it refers to context and placement, which is where brands are most vulnerable, precisely because advertising is often about engendering a positive association. An ad shown next to controversial content might get a lot of attention, but it might not be the kind of attention that ­­­the brand wants. The press is always ready to pounce, but there are also the countless, unreported viewings by ordinary Internet users who may forever subconsciously view that brand with a deep-down slither of distaste.
When it comes to YouTube’s guidelines, it’s in the interests of everyone involved to understand that this latest brand safety scare isn’t just a simple matter of censorship, but a case of a complex symbiotic ecosystem trying to find a state of balance.
 

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