Youtube spent the last year confronting accusations that it had become a haven for people who used the video site to distribute disinformation, hatred and abuse.
Just like it did the year before.
And on Thursday night, YouTube gathered thousands of advertisers and told them it took those problems very seriously. Then it put on a glitzy show aimed at getting them to give YouTube all of their money.
Just like it did the year before.
If you attended this year’s “Brandcast” event at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall and last year’s, it would be easy to come away with a sense you were watching a repeat. But there was a subtle difference: Even though YouTube faces the same problem trying to tame its just-about-anything-goes platform that it did a year ago, it has apparently decided to spend less time apologizing for it.
On Thursday, just like last year, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki opened her advertiser showcase with a speech extolling the many virtues of the world’s largest video platform, and explaining why it was a great place to spend marketing dollars.
She also made an oblique reference to “responsibility”, and said that “living up to our responsibility is my number one priority. And we are making significant progress. My leadership team and I — along with thousands of people at YouTube — are laser-focused on this.”
Wojcicki listed a few steps YouTube was making to improve the site, including a promise to make sure that humans reviewed all videos in YouTube’ “Google Preferred” program — a clean, well-lit place that YouTube has been telling advertisers is a safe place to spend their money.
“I recognize that there is still work to be done, but we are committed to getting this right,” Wojcicki said.
Then on with the show, which included testimonials from advertisers, cameos from stars including Tiffany Haddish and Alicia Keys, and musical extravaganzas featuring the likes of Daddy Yankee and Dua Lipa.
But last year, Wojcicki was much more contrite and explicit — strikingly so, for a presentation that’s supposed to be upbeat by default.
“We’ve also seen that with openness also comes challenges, as some have tried to take advantage of our services,” she told advertisers in 2018. “There isn’t a playbook for how open platforms operate at our scale. But the way I think about it, is it’s critical that we are on the right side of history.” Then Wojcicki explained what YouTube would do to fix its problem — some of which she repeated this year.
Again, it’s a small thing. Mostly tone. But a major point of big advertising showcases like the ones the big video companies hosted this week, and the ones the big TV networks will host in a couple weeks, is tone: The video or TV guys come to these events armed with facts about their marketing prowess and clips of their most promising programming. But what they’re really selling is optimism and confidence: Trust us. Give us millions of your dollars and you won’t regret it.
You can’t blame Wojcicki and her team for putting the best face forward. Just like you won’t expect CBS to spend time at its upcoming sales showcase referencing Les Moonves, the former CBS CEO bounced out of his job last year in the wake of horrifying allegations of sexual misconduct and a subsequent cover-up.
It’s also quite likely that advertisers will indeed keep spending billions of dollars a year on YouTube: Both because they’re generally happy to do so — as long as their ads don’t appear on or next to some of the most objectionable stuff on the internet — and because of the site’s giant user base of more than 2 billion people.
I recently talked to an advertising executive whose company had been a prominent critic of YouTube over the past few years, and who had pulled their ads from YouTube in the wake of various scandals. That company will continue to spend money on YouTube, the exec told me, at least in part because of its enormous size: “We need to be there.”
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.