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YouTube Enables Ads on Coronavirus Content; Brands Should Evaluate Strategies to Mitigate Inadvertent Backlash

Adding another layer of complexity to sensitively marketing in the COVID-19 environment, YouTube announced on March 11 that it will permit certain creators to monetize (i.e., enable ads on) content relating to coronavirus.  Companies and brands should review their approach in this pandemic, including refining YouTube content exclusion parameters and policing their ad environments, if they do not wish to risk association with potentially undesirable videos. 

Prior to the recent announcement, YouTube classified coronavirus content under its “Controversial issues and sensitive events policy.”  The policy bars monetization of videos related to, among others, “an unforeseen event in which there has been a loss of life” (e.g. natural disasters, mass shootings).  The policy protects advertisers from the perception of capitalizing on controversial or tragic events.  According to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, enabling ads on coronavirus-related content started with “a limited number of channels, expanding to more soon.”  Initially, only news partners and creators “who accurately self-certify” are eligible to monetize under this policy change.   

Amidst the “infodemic” of misinformation about COVID-19, YouTube’s decision to permit ads on coronavirus content heightens the risk that branded advertisements may be displayed with content that is misaligned with brand values, or downright harmful.  For example, a brief search on YouTube shows branded ads before and during videos about, among others, using Corona beer for homemade hand sanitizer (in violation of the relevant WHO guidance on the topic).  These and other instances may damage brand credibility and messaging, create a perception of the brand exploiting the pandemic, and adversely affect PR in general.  Indeed, a 2017 study by the Chief Marketing Officer Council found that when consumers encounter branded ads around objectionable content or fake news, 37% said it would change their perception of the brand during a purchasing decision; 11% say they would not do business with that brand, and 9% said they would become vocal critics of the brand.  The same study also corroborated consumer backlash if the company is not seen as proactive in controlling the integrity of their ad environments. 

Marketing, advertising, and trademark teams should collaborate on a consistent approach to tackle thorny branding, marketing, and advertising issues in the sensitive COVID-19 environment.  In light of YouTube’s announcement, this exercise should undoubtedly include reviewing content exclusion parameters and destination videos on the platform. 

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Karen is a trademark attorney with a particular focus on representing pharmaceutical clients in branding matters, including drug name approvals at the USPTO and the FDA.