Do We Need a Reverse Adpocalypse?


Deja-tube: no, it’s not the weird feeling one gets while watching Doja Cat’s “Demons” video. It’s the uncanny sensation after seeing a YouTube ad in clear, flagrant defiance of the platform’s policies show up on one channel and suddenly seeing it everywhere. 

Whether it’s fleshlights, celebrity AI-generated Medicaid scams, MAGA conspiracy theories, government-funded warnings about opioid abuse, or the stars of “Broad City” talking about their poop (for two minutes!!!); only the algorithm determines what content gets in front of what eyeballs. It is a black box for creators, who do not get to determine which ads will generate for someone watching their channel. A viewer can end up seeing a certain type of commercial over and over again, across multiple channels, as long as they fit the correct demographic the ad is targeting. 

So it’s officially up to viewers to flag certain ads as being problematic, and celebrities to raise awareness after their likeness is used by an AI commercial because whatever screening process (if any) YouTube uses for advertisers appears to be singularly focused on format, not content.

Fundamentally, this is a broken model: it’s not how TV ad works, it’s not how media ad works, hell, it’s not even how Google AdSense works. And Google owns YouTube! Advertisers are vetted, even in the race for the bottom-of-the-barrel that is internet bucks.


As Passionfruit’s publisher James Del said, “The only thing in digital advertising that could impact this (but prob won’t) is that Google is killing the 3rd party ad cookie, meaning it’ll be a lot harder for brands to target users based on their browsing behavior.” And it’s doubtful YouTube will be going in the same direction.

In August of last year, the ad transparency and quality service Adalytics conducted an independent audit, which appeared to show the platform in violation of its own policies regarding ad placement in children’s content. According to the independent report: “Google’s Performance Max (“Pmax”) ad targeting algorithm appears to be placing adult brands’ ads on “made for kids’ YouTube channels; advertisers report they cannot audit this issue because Pmax does not provide them with granular placement reports.” (Not to mention the whole “mining the collection of children’s private data” issue, which is a whole different story.)

Meanwhile, none of the creators we spoke to said they get to determine what ads are shown on their channels. Passionfruit has its own verified channel now (thanks subs!), and were unable to locate any advertising moderation tools from the creator end. 

And that’s…really messed up, if you think about it. If marking your content as safe for children doesn’t guarantee that your video won’t end up hosting an ad using copyrighted footage to sell sex toys, then what was that whole Adpocolypse thing about in the first place? Why did YouTubers end up seeing their revenue per view drop precipitously in 2017, and then again in 2018, and again in 2019, if not to protect the children? 

It’s clear that while one set of strictly upheld content guidelines apply to creators, they are not being applied to advertisers. Take, for example, YouTube’s approach to AI: users must label it, but advertisers are free to promote deepfakes until it violates MrBeast or Taylor Swift’s intellectual property rights. Basically: if you try to monetize content on YouTube, you’ll be held to a set of standards that does not apply to anyone advertising on your channel. 

And it’s only going to get worse: YouTube already announced in October of last year a slate of new tools to help advertisers grow their reach without expending extra budget. Their new Spotlight Moments literally uses an AI-generated algorithm to help advertisers capitalize on major cultural events. “Brands will automatically appear alongside the most relevant and engaging content associated with the moment,” read the official blog post from Google. So expect to see, as I did recently, a bunch of pro-Israel spots because one time you let the entire ad play through just to confirm you weren’t hallucinating. 

So while we’re busy playing Whac-A-Mole with specific YouTube ads that hit a cultural saturation point of egregiousness, just about anyone can spend a few bucks and tap their product or point of view directly into the cultural zeitgeist. And who loses out the most? Arguably it’s the viewer, who can only expect an uptick in fake spam advertisements (as well as possible buffering issues) if they dare to use an ad blocker. 

So what I’m saying is maybe…time to do a reverse adpocolypse? Maybe? Or at least compel YouTube to disclose what guardrails, if any, are in place to stop inappropriate or misleading ads from being shown on your channels. You know, the same way they demonetized and devalued your content when advertisers threatened to leave. 

At least, let’s give it a good think.


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