AT&T to Advertise on YouTube Again After a Nearly 2-Year Holdout - The New York Times

Image AT&T pulled its advertising from YouTube in 2017 because it was appearing near offensive content too often. Credit Credit Mike Blake/Reuters

AT&T thinks YouTube is safe for advertisers again.

The company, one of the nation’s biggest marketers, yanked its dollars from YouTube in 2017 because its ads were appearing alongside offensive videos. But on Friday, AT&T said it had been persuaded to resume advertising on the video platform.

The decision reflects the progress that Google-owned YouTube has made with advertisers in the 22 months since a number of them discovered that some of their ads were appearing during, or before, videos promoting hate speech, terrorism and other disturbing content. AT&T was among the first companies that stopped paying to advertise on YouTube, telling it that they wouldn’t return until it made improvements.

YouTube has since introduced a series of changes aimed at making the platform “brand safe” — that is, an appropriate place for companies to run advertisements. It has raised the number of subscribers and the viewership that video makers must have in order to carry ads, and is subjecting videos to more human and automated oversight.

“The testing took time, and we needed to be 100 percent confident throughout our organization that it met the standards that we were aiming for,” Fiona Carter, AT&T’s chief brand officer, said in an interview. “We want a near-zero chance of our advertising appearing next to objectionable content, and that’s a high standard.”

Companies have long paid close attention to the content that they fund with their television commercials. Shows like “Gilmore Girls,” for example, were backed by an advertiser group that sought to produce more prime-time programming for families. Lowe’s and others dropped ads from ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” in 2004 because they thought it was too racy. And after revelations that Bill O’Reilly had reached settlements with women over allegations of harassment and inappropriate behavior, at least 50 major brands said they would not advertise on his Fox News show, hastening his exit from the network.

Many brands were not paying the same attention to their online advertising, outside of avoiding the obvious, like pornography sites. In the past two years, however, the business of brand safety has boomed, and major marketers have sought new control over their digital presence — even if that means leaving platforms that reach vast numbers of young people, like YouTube.

The advertiser exodus brought a focus to the potential risks of digital ads, which often follow individuals on whatever content they are viewing. Questions were raised about what that meant for advertisers, which could inadvertently end up funding disturbing material and be associated with such content by viewers.

“We care deeply about where we appear and whether it reflects our values and whether it breaks that trust with our consumers,” Ms. Carter said. “It was a moment to remind us that marketers must have their hands on the wheel at all times of their brands’ destiny.”

The outcry over YouTube occurred as brands were discovering their automatically placed ads on websites promoting conspiracy theories and other toxic material. JPMorgan Chase, for example, reduced the number of sites that could run its display ads to about 5,000 after The New York Times showed the company one of its ads on a site called Hillary 4 Prison, where a headline promised to reveal “the horrifying truth about the Satanic liberal perverts who run Hollywood.” Previously, the company was running ads on about 400,000 sites a month.

At the same time, brands came under pressure from activists to pull their ads from Breitbart News, the hard-right, nationalist website closely tied to President Trump’s administration. Most of the brands were unaware that their ads had been appearing there.

To some, the action by advertisers was a shift of a pendulum that had swung too far toward automation.

Ms. Carter wrote in a LinkedIn post on Friday that while she was “thrilled” to be back on YouTube, she was “glad that we packed up our ads and walked away in the first place.”

“As powerful as digital platforms are in today’s advertising ecosystem,” she added, “they can’t be permitted to disempower the brands that use them to reach their customers.”

Still, even as YouTube wins back major clients like AT&T, that doesn’t mean the platform is “out of the woods in terms of brand safety issues,” said Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research.

“Any nonhuman-curated platform will have risks,” he said. “The question is, are advertisers willing to take the risks? And generally speaking, the answer is yes. Brand unsafe or inappropriate things will still happen, and it just comes down to you hope to get the obvious things.”

Testing that AT&T conducted after the problem arose showed that it was widespread. Ms. Carter gave credit to Google’s and YouTube’s leaders, who “leaned into the issue when they realized from the evidence we produced that perhaps it was a broader issue than they were aware of.”

Marketers and their agencies have also learned more about the types of content that they may want to avoid. For example, Ms. Carter said, AT&T looks to avoid gaming videos, where the chances of unsavory chatter and behavior may increase.

“Having to have more subscribers and more viewing hours has really helped with eliminating fringe content that we might not want to advertise against,” she said.

In AT&T’s latest test of YouTube’s Brand Suitability System, which avoids categories like violence, extremist and hate speech, and adult content, almost zero ads ran alongside offensive content.

In April, Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, confirmed that it was returning to YouTube after they worked together “extensively” to ensure that its ads would be placed in appropriate environments.

Procter & Gamble spent $2.8 billion on ads in 2017, according to data from Kantar Media. AT&T, the second-biggest advertiser in the United States, spent $2.4 billion in the same period.

“Over the past year, we’ve worked hard to address concerns raised by our customers,” Debbie Weinstein, vice president of YouTube Video Global Solutions, said in a statement. “We’re committed to retaining their trust in YouTube, and ensuring they can realize the unique value of our platform.”

YouTube has an enormous audience of viewers in their teens and 20s, and Ms. Carter said on Thursday that she was keen to reach that group again. She added, however, that AT&T and its agency would continue testing to make sure its guidelines were being met.

“Technological advancements mean you have to be on your game and you have to be constantly vigilant in this area,” Ms. Carter said.