Over the weekend, major advertisers including Amazon, Cadbury, eBay, Mars, Diageo, Adidas, HP and Deutsche Bank stopped advertising on YouTube over concerns their ads are running on videos of children which are being targeted and exploited.
An investigation by The Times and BBC found that YouTube had allowed sexualised imagery of children to be easily searchable and not lived up to promises to better monitor and police its services to protect children.
The content, although legal and mostly uploaded by children themselves, is easily exploited by paedophile networks who are said to post messages and links to one another in the comments section underneath the videos.
The clips are usually of boys and girls performing everyday activities in their homes. But sometimes the children can be seen partially clothed or in their nightwear.
The news comes after a shocking investigation revealed earlier that YouTube's system for reporting sexual comments on children's videos has not been working for more than a year.
In response, a YouTube spokesman said: "There shouldn't be any ads running on this content and we are working urgently to fix this".
Chocolate maker Mars pulled back from Google’s broader ad offerings as well as YouTube.
“We have taken the decision to immediately suspend all our online advertising on YouTube and Google globally,” it said in a statement. “Until we have confidence that appropriate safeguards are in place, we will not advertise on YouTube and Google.”
Diageo, maker of beverages such as Smirnoff vodka and Johnnie Walker whisky, said it has begun an urgent investigation and halted all YouTube advertising until appropriate safeguards were in place.
The German sports goods maker Adidas said on last Friday it took the issue raised very seriously and was working closely with Google on "all necessary steps to avoid any re-occurrences of this situation".
Deutsche Bank said in a statement: "We take this matter very seriously and suspended the advertising campaign as soon as we became aware of it.
A spokesperson for the British arm of German discount retailer Lidl said it was "completely unacceptable that this content is available to view, and it is, therefore, clear that the strict policies which Google has assured us were in place to tackle offensive content are ineffective".
"HP has immediately instructed Google to suspend all HP advertising globally on YouTube. We are deeply troubled to learn that one of our advertisements was placed in a terrible and inappropriate context. HP has strict brand safety protocols in place across all online advertising, including YouTube and this appears to be the result of a content misclassification by Google." HP's spokesman said.
It is the second major brand safety scandal on the popular video platform this year after several leading brands boycotted YouTube ads earlier this year.
YouTube relies on software algorithms, external non-government groups and police forces to report inappropriate images of children. The company announced last week it would expand those efforts to crack down on sexualised or violent content aimed at "family friendly" sections of YouTube.
Johanna Wright, YouTube’s vice president of product management, promised tougher application of its user guidelines to remove inappropriate ads targeting families, block inappropriate comments on videos featuring minors and provide further guidance for creators of family-friendly content.