We need to talk about YouTube

Jordan Guiao, a research fellow at The Australia Institute's Centre for Responsible Technology, suggests it might be time to hit Pause on YouTube and smash that subscribe button on scrutiny.

YouTube is a huge deal. Consumers love it, kids love watching random toy unboxings in it, brands love the reach it gives. But it’s also full of crap, ranging from the wasted ad spend on irrelevant videos, to the serious, really disturbing crap, like terrorist content and violent mob glorification, to conspiracy theorists and medical misinformation.

I get it. We would really rather prefer to ignore the bad stuff. We love the easy reach, the potential for virality, and the fact that it’s the most easily embeddable video player in the whole Internet. YouTube is after all the second most popular social network after Facebook. It’s also the second largest search engine after Google. So where the audience goes, we go.

But things are about to change.

The coming regulatory storm

This year is going to be a watershed year for regulating Big Tech. It’s in the agenda of many governments globally. In Australia, we’ve seen how wide-reaching the News Media Bargaining Code has been, how large digital platforms we once carefreely relied on like Facebook could instantly and unexpectedly turn off access for thousands of Pages, and that is just the beginning.

There are more inquiries and regulation slated for the rest of the year. There is the Privacy Act review, the Online Safety Act update, the Disinformation Code, and perhaps most relevant to media and marketers – the Digital Advertising Services Inquiry.

The Digital Advertising Services Inquiry looks specifically at Google’s complete dominance and horizontal integration across adtech. It looks at allegations of self-preferencing, the fact that YouTube inventory is sold exclusively through the Google ad network, the fact that there’s no independent verification around YouTube, and of course, brand safety, i.e. – the ‘crap’ which advertisers are inevitably funding.

Our guilty secret – we know YouTube is full of crap

YouTube has had a long and persistent issue with brand safety (or brand suitability if you prefer that term). Even the UK Marketing Director for Google Ads Nishma Robb, freely admitted that brands will never be “100% safe” in YouTube.

In 2017 there was a huge advertiser boycott when brands en masse realised the extent to which their ads were being placed against offensive, harmful content. So we know that it’s been an issue for years. But the problem continues to persist today.

Recently, The New Zealand Christchurch shooter has expressed that he “found inspiration” from YouTube and confirmed that he got more radicalised in the YouTube network than directly through militant hard-right forums. The recent Capitol Hill violence that broke out in the US showed YouTube videos of rioters promoting the violence they caused, and ads paid for by hapless marketers were giving the channel revenue.

These things are not okay.

In an environment facing growing regulation, with consumers demanding brands actively live their values, can marketers really afford to ignore the quagmire of crap in YouTube they’re inadvertedly paying for?

In YouTube’s defense, it has increased its efforts around brand safety and verification tools, actively taking down substantial amounts of disinformation around conspiracy theories and the pandemic. But these things have often happened only after the damage has already been done.

YouTube can keep avoiding scrutiny, or can it?

The funny thing is that YouTube is very good at getting out of scrutiny. We’ve seen Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pinchai all fronting Senate hearings and inquiries. YouTube’s executives never joined them.

Most accept that YouTube falls under the overall Google umbrella and so it makes sense for Google to represent them.

But that sentiment really falls flat when you look at the outsized influence of YouTube, its power, its reach, its $15 billion advertising revenue which was revealed for the first time in 2020. The fact that it’s the second most popular social network in the world. The fact that it’s the second largest search engine in the world.

Coupled with the fact that its platform has been host to some of the worst kinds of misinformation and disinformation, election interference, terrorist content, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, hate speech, and incitement to violence.

We need to start seeing YouTube, and hold them more responsible for their content and the budgets that we put behind them.

With the ACCC Adtech Inquiry hot on the industry’s heels, it’s a good time to start thinking about the best way to be brand safe, and ensuring video metrics are air-tight and verifiable. Of course it never hurts to be as diversified in media and channel strategies as possible too, never relying too heavily on one or two platforms.

YouTube, it’s time to have a chat.

Jordan Guiao is a research fellow at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.