It’s not a good look for your macrobiotic crunchy granola-infused omni-sensitive global media brand when it gets plastered across a Polish hate video. Less-discerning YouTube viewers — is there any other sort? — might imagine that you, The Guardian, were throwing your resources and prestige behind neo-Nazis in ski masks.

In other equally odious scenarios, the brainiacs lurking down in YouTube’s comment threads might not realise that you, Holden, or you, Telstra, didn’t actually support beardy ISIS nutters screaming for death to the infidel.

And so, for the past couple of weeks, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been bleeding revenue as brand advertisers pull hundreds of millions of dollars from el Goog’s platforms.

It started in London, when The Guardian was alerted that its adverts were appearing before or even within YouTube videos by racists, misogynists and homophobes. Adding insult to injury, the crazies and bottom-crawlers weren’t just getting a credibility boost from association by proximity. They were making out like bandits from their advertising affiliate income.

Brands were spending squillions of dollars, to find they were indirectly boosting the image of violent political and cultural pariahs. Even worse, they were paying the pocket Nazis for the privilege of appearing on their channels. Tens of thousands of dollars were going into the accounts of white supremacists and their ilk.

The avowedly left-leaning media group was the first business to pull its money out of Google, but many quickly followed — first in Europe, then across the pond in the US. Big Australian ad buyers have followed them out the exit. Holden and Kia had their oh-no moment when their advertising popped up in a video featuring “men’s rights activist” Peter Lloyd abusing much-loved magazine editor and former Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose.

The problem for them — as well as for brands as diverse but significant as Domino’s and L’Oreal — was programmatic advertising.

google boycott

Perfect match

Unlike the olden days, when L’Oreal’s glossy photoshoots would only ever run in carefully chosen high-end magazines, in the digital era algorithms make all the decisions. If Google decides your expensive perfume would be a perfect match with a jihadist snuff video — because movies of aid workers getting their heads cut off in the Syrian desert suggests “travel”, “exotic locations” and “high disposable income” — then you’re one click away from the sort of virality money can’t buy.

Google, which is still basically an ad platform despite all the “moonshots” and self-driving cars, has scrambled to staunch the bleeding. In future, it promises, clients will have greater control over where their ads run.

It’s not that simple a fix, however. The appeal of programmatic placement is that expensive human decision-making is taken out of the loop. When it works, the algorithm automatically drops your extra-cheesy-crust pizza ad in front of tens of millions of potential gluttons with low impulse control simply because it was served up with the hottest cute cat video of the day, or the hour.

But when it doesn’t work …

There is a cold irony — even an element of payback — involved in a media outlet like The Guardian being responsible for Google’s current woe. The search giant ate the business model of the old media at least ten years ago, forcing surviving mastheads to seek new income streams. The ads Google served up with a piping side dish of crazy racism were for The Guardian’s membership drive — a desperate lunge for a future that didn’t depend on ad dollars.

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