Media giant Google is facing a very public advertising boycott from top brands around the world, including Walmart, Pepsi, Verizon, and Starbucks to name a few.  These high profile brands (and several more) recently pulled their ads from Google, which owns media giant YouTube, because their ads were ‘randomly’ placed… and ended up next to offensive material, hate rhetoric, and violent imagery. The boycott represents a huge financial impact on Google – YouTube grossed $8.5 billion in 2015, according to one report, while Google websites reportedly grossed $52.4 billion.

Google Chief Business Officer Philipp Schindler, in a blog post, made a pledge to anxious advertisers: “We know advertisers don’t want their ads next to content that doesn’t align with their values. So, starting today, we’re taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content. Schindler’s post outlined some of the safeguards the company plans to introduce to combat the issue.

Policies with little effect

While YouTube and Facebook do have guidelines against publishing content that promotes violence, hate speech, and other objectionable material, it’s clear their system for monitoring and combating the mounds of content is severely lacking.

Google/YouTube’s argument is that it contends with 400 hours of content uploaded every minute, making it enormously difficult to implement real time checks and balances. Even the secret algorithm Google had been using to filter out unsavory content when placing ads doesn’t seem to work 100% of the time.  The human factor in the nuances of this medium – and its advertisers – seem to be lost on Google. This could cost them millions in ad spend, so they need to implement effective changes quickly.

Publisher responsibility in question

At issue is not just the ‘automated system’ YouTube uses to place ads next to videos. Google (and other platforms) continue to maintain they are merely distributing content, while claiming no responsibility for it. As fake news and hate speech proliferates, Facebook too insists they are simply a platform, not ‘publishers’ of content.

That excuse is wearing thin on advertisers who invest significant money and resources into digital advertising. No brand wants their reputation tarnished by being associated with objectionable content simply because one of their ads ran ‘randomly’ next to a recruiting video for a hate group.

Many in the advertising industry insist that Google and other tech giants like Facebook are in fact publishers — similar to a news organization or any other media company — and they must accept and implement genuine responsibility for that role.

Skittish brands may retreat

This wake up call for online marketers could actually shift dollars back to traditional advertising methods, as brands return to proven advertising channels. Television’s strong advertising infrastructure offers far more control over where ads are placed, when they run, and in what context. This safety net is appealing and comforting to big brands who fear being damaged by inadvertent ad placement.

Before you plan your next digital campaign, it’s absolutely vital that you researching the options, costs, and audience reach as well as the risks associated with placing content on the “wild wild web.”  If guidelines aren’t enforced by media companies, there are no consequences — and the only recourse for brands seems to be pulling ads until Google steps up.