Ads sold through Google have turned up in some pretty horrific corners of the web lately, and many big advertisers are outraged.
The search giant responded to the growing uproar among its client brands on Friday with an unusual public apology and a promise to “do a better job.”
“We’ve heard from our advertisers and agencies loud and clear that we can provide simpler, more robust ways to stop their ads from showing against controversial content,” Google U.K. managing director Ronan Harris wrote in a blog post.
Google is the biggest advertising company on the internet, and ads bought through its various platforms are spread across hundreds of thousands of websites and millions of YouTube videos.
The company has strict rules that exclude hate speech, misinformation and illegal activities, but its massive scale means there’s always an inherent measure of risk that bad actors might slip through the cracks.
That seems to be happening quite a bit in the UK right now.
The mea culpa comes after the company was called before the British government on Thursday to answer for why ads for various taxpayer-funded groups have appeared alongside extremist content, like videos from former KKK leader David Duke and a homophobic preacher who’s praised the Orlando nightclub shooting.
British authorities said they have temporarily suspended all ads from the platform, through which it promotes the BBC, military branches, tourism boards and other public organizations.
Hours earlier, The Guardian announced its own withdrawal after finding its ads on hate-speech sites. L’Oreal, Honda, and the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s have done the same, The Times of London reports.
Most of the stray placements came to light through reporting published this week by The Times, which seems to be digging into the Google-ads-in-bad-places beat.
The paper caused another splash last month when it reported that several major brands were unwittingly funding terrorists through ads on YouTube videos associated with the Islamic State and Nazi groups.
Perhaps the biggest blow to Google came when the British branch of Havas, one of the handful of big agency groups that dominate the global ad industry, said Friday morning that it would cut its contracts until it was more confident in Google’s filters. Across all of its properties, the French holding company spends some $200 million on UK digital ads on behalf of its clients, which include Domino’s, Hyundai/Kia and wireless carrier O2.
Strangely, there seems to be some discord between the division and its headquarters across the channel. The company’s CEO told a French newspaper that its British arm’s decision was “extreme” and that Havas would “continue to negotiate with Google to find solutions.”
I was completely unaware of the decision of Havas UK with Google. I will investigate what happened before making an official statement
— Yannick Bolloré (@YannickBollore) March 17, 2017
Martin Sorrell, the outspoken head of WPP, the largest holding company in the world, told Business Insider on Friday that tech companies can no longer hide behind the excuse that they are passive platforms in situations like these.
“We have always said Google, Facebook and others are media companies and have the same responsibilities as any other media company,” he told the site in a statement. “They cannot masquerade as technology companies, particularly when they place advertisements.”
Google didn’t elaborate much on any specific changes to address these issues, which it claims are “a very small percentage of cases.”
Harris said advertisers can expect platform tweaks in coming weeks that will give them more control over where their ads end up. Their exact nature will be determined through “a thorough review” of the company’s ads policies across YouTube and its various ad networks.
Google makes a show of its yearly “bad ads report,” in which it boasts about the billions of bad ads, tens of thousands of fraudulent web publishers and hundreds of millions of offensive YouTube videos that it nixes.
But it’s faced extra scrutiny since last year’s presidential election brought to light the role it played in the outbreak of hoaxes, misinformation and conspiracies infecting web media.
It’s not the only one. A massive boycott campaign against the far-right blog Breitbart and other consumer activism have spotlighted some of the flaws in the esoteric programmed systems by which ads from big brands are distributed far and wide across the web.
Advertisers have become more cognizant of the extent to which many automated ad tech tools leave them flying blind. Ads are constantly being sold, resold and retargeted by the billions through exchanges run entirely by software.
That model – Google not necessarily included – sustains internet scourges like hate propaganda, phony news and other unsavory enterprises.