YouTube is Running Ads for Major Brands on Fake Medical News Videos

Objectionable content still slipping through site’s safeguards

The videos included claims that HIV infections are not dangerous and that HIV does not lead to AIDS.
Sources: Getty Images, YouTube

YouTube has been running advertisements for major brands on videos that promote potentially dangerous theories about HIV/AIDS—an indication that the video platform’s human and automated reviewers are continuing to struggle with identifying and flagging content that might be seen as objectionable or offensive.

In May and June, video advertisements for companies like Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, development platform Wix, insurance company Lemonade and mattress company SAATVA ran before YouTube videos that pushed widely discredited and debunked theories about HIV and AIDS.

Those videos included claims that HIV infections are not dangerous, that HIV does not lead to AIDS and that necessary antiretroviral medication to treat HIV is more dangerous than the virus itself—claims that have been rejected and refuted by the scientific community. If believed, these erroneous claims about the virus could have dangerous health consequences for HIV-positive people or people who are at risk of contracting HIV.

In an email to Adweek after the story published, YouTube said: “This should not have happened and we apologize for the mistake. The flagged videos earned less than $100 in total over the last 60 days. We immediately removed ads on violating videos and credited advertisers. While our system and controls work as intended 99 percent of the time, there are a small number of instances where they do not and we are committed to closing that gap even further.”

Conspiracy theories abound

Two advertisements—one promoting a Toyota Corolla and another promoting a Mercedes-Benz—were first spotted by the freelance reporter Michael Schulson, who wrote about the prevalence of false medical information on YouTube. Schulson, who said in an email that he saw the advertisements on May 9 while he was reporting from Israel and Palestine, was served a Mercedes-Benz advertisement before a 2010 video from the Russian state-funded news agency RT (formerly known as “Russia Today”) titled “The AIDS Myth Unraveled.” Another advertisement for a Toyota Corolla, according to Schulman, ran before a 2016 video from a California-based chiropractor titled “HIV and AIDS—The Real Cause and Solution.”

We reviewed the two videos from New York in June, no advertisements ran before those videos played, and there were no markers on the video indicating that an advertisement was programmed to run on the video. But YouTube’s Up Next section recommended another video from RT from 2010 titled: “HIV test a crime, AIDS ‘cure’ killed a whole generation.” An advertisement for Wix preceded the video, which contained an uncritical interview with a leading proponent of the debunked theory that HIV does not cause AIDS. Upon a second viewing, a SAATVA ad played beforehand; a week later, the video ran an advertisement for Lemonade.

An advertisement for Wix also appeared on another AIDS denialist video from RT titled “AIDS conference simply propaganda.” That video was also from 2010 and, like the other RT videos reviewed for this article, was uploaded at the time of an annual international AIDS conference.  

A spokesperson for Wix said the company was not aware that its ads were running on AIDS denialist content until Adweek brought the ads to its attention.

“We make every effort to target our advertising based on demographics of viewers and to prevent advertising on channels that do not share our values,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Unfortunately, we’re usually made aware of these instances when they are brought to our attention from viewers. It is clear that the platforms themselves must provide better tools to advertisers to limit this sort of activity.”

A spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz said the company was not aware that its advertisements had run on the AIDS denialist content from RT. The spokesperson said there was nothing further for the company to take action on because the advertisement no longer appeared on the video.

Recommended articles