Context is crucial when considering ads on Google
A view from Claire Beale

Context is crucial when considering ads on Google

How did Google, a company chock-full of so many smart, decent people manage to get itself into such a quagmire?

Of course, there's really only one story this week. Google. For a considered evaluation of the unfolding mess, read Gideon Spanier’s column.

Ask me whether Google should take responsibility for the content it publishes and, as a human being, a parent, a publisher, my answer is "hell, yes". Except, of course, that many social sites do not consider themselves publishers but call themselves platforms. And with that distinction, responsibility is conveniently diminished.

"You can’t hold us responsible for all the material that is posted on our platform, any more than you can hold Royal Mail responsible for the content of letters that it distributes," one platform chief told me earlier this week. But Royal Mail is not making the letters public, amplifying them and then selling that exposure for its own financial gain. It’s a deeply disingenuous comparison.

Many social sites do not consider themselves publishers but call themselves platforms. And with that distinction, responsibility is conveniently diminished.

There are, though, two issues here. First, whether and how Google should be censoring offensive material. Second, whether and how Google can ensure brands’ ads don’t appear in that offensive material.

This second issue, since there’s money at stake, has become the most inflammatory. But it’s the first that is the fundamental issue, the real societal danger, a danger that all social media must aggressively address.

Clearly this is not an issue that is unique to Google. And clearly there’s a long way for this story to run before any satisfactory resolution emerges.

In the meantime, is it beyond Google to create a suite of "approved" content providers and only serve ads on those kite-marked streams? Or does that commit Google to taking the responsibility for the content that it seems loath to do?

And Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington is spot-on – programmatic advertising means you lose sight of any context to your commercial message.

Huntington says, "I despair at the way the industry has forgotten the benefits of context." Media owners invest heavily in creating valuable, reliable and responsible contexts for commercial messages. It’s what makes us, ultimately, such powerful commercial partners as well as such valued sources of information and entertainment.

It works both ways, of course. I was watching one of Campaign’s videos (ironically about artificial intelligence) on YouTube yesterday and had to sit through an ad for VIPoo toilet spray first. I’m hoping there was the usual absence of contextual relevance there.