Ad buyers who asked YouTube not to run their ads on kids’ channels saw their advertisements on this content anyway, three buyers told Adweek.
This comes as Google is, once again, under fire, this time for YouTube ads allegedly leading to tracking of children, according to The New York Times.
A business-to-business client of independent Italian media agency Aidem ran a campaign targeted at business people, explicitly excluding “content suitable for families,” said CEO Giovanni Sollazzo. The ads appeared on channels like stacyplays and lunacreciente, specifically labeled with banners saying “Try YouTube Kids,” according to screenshots from the campaign’s reporting.
“Almost every campaign I have seen on YouTube has run on ‘made for kids,’” Sollazzo said. “All of them were not targeted at children.”
Running ads on kids’ channels is not only a waste of money for most brands, as kids can’t buy products, but could potentially contain regulatory risk, according to new research from Adalytics. Moreover, for buyers, the presence of Google’s AI-powered Performance Max in the report’s findings calls into question the use of controls on its ad products.
Research outfit Adalytics found that YouTube ads that run on kids’ channels contain trackers that advertisers could use to retarget kids across the internet. Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which YouTube was fined for violating in 2019, it is illegal to run targeted ads on children’s content.
Still, buyers find Google’s controls to avoid targeting kids’ content fall short.
A client of Iris Worldwide also clicked to exclude “content suitable for families” when running a campaign, yet the client’s ads still showed on channels labeled as part of the YouTube Kids network, according to screenshots viewed by Adweek. Such content is meant to run on YouTube made for kids, according to a Google blog post.
“I have seen this on many campaigns in the past. I’ve also tried other methods of excluding ‘made for kids’ channels like excluding child-oriented keywords and categories,” said Keri Thomas, performance media director at Iris. “The ‘made for kids’ channels continue to appear in placement reports anyway.”
A third ad buyer, who was not authorized by her agency to speak to the press, said that at least once a quarter someone at the agency will reach out in a company Slack channel in desperation about the issue. Often they have tried multiple methods to block ads running on kids’ content, including exclusion lists and blocking specific channels, only for their ads to continue to show on these videos.
U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Marsha Blackburn this week sent an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission on the basis of the report, asking the agency to investigate YouTube for potentially violating COPPA.
Google has said the report does not prove it violated COPPA and draws false conclusions via the presence of cookies, which are used for fraud detection and frequency capping but not for tracking kids. It is legal to run ads on kids’ content—parents often watch the shows as well—so long as it is contextual, even if some advertisers would rather not pay for it.
Performance Max amplifies transparency risk
Google says it allows buyers to opt out of showing ads on “made for kids” content on the account level, which applies to all campaign types. But these controls often fail, buyers have told Adweek.
In response, buyers have tried to take a more hands-on approach to eliminate “made for kids” content, including using crowdsourced exclusion lists of channels found on Reddit, the third ad buyer source said.
This approach is most effective when ad buyers know exactly which kids’ channels their ads ran on inadvertently and can exclude those in the future.
But Performance Max, a popular Google ad format that uses artificial intelligence to place ads across Google’s massive swath of inventory, doesn’t let buyers know which YouTube channels their ads ran on, multiple buyer sources told Adweek.
Buyers have already been scrutinizing Google for a lack of transparency. Some say that Performance Max, which was rolled out globally in November 2021, gives brands too little insight into where their ads are running despite achieving good results.
The use of Performance Max—for its ease and performance—has grown. In May this year, Performance Max was 36.3% of total Google spend, according to software company Varos, based on data from its network.
Adalytics identified several brands, like BMO Bank and Intuit, that ended up on kids’ content via advertising on Performance Max.
Moreover, an Adalytics report released earlier this summer accused YouTube of consistently running ads in sound-off, unviewable placements and on low-quality websites, which led some buyers to redirect their YouTube strategy.
Correction: This story previously cited reporting by Insider on IPG Mediabrands’ advice to clients about Performance Max. IPG disputes the story. The citation has been removed.