Humans Pointing Fingers at Algorithms Is Buck-Passing of the Worst Order

A sponsor is lost at a major media outlet after an offensive comment about rape.

Trojan condoms pulled their ads:

“The Trojan brand is committed to advancing the sexual health of those who choose to be sexually active,” James Daniels, vice president of marketing for Trojan condoms, a division of the Church & Dwight Company, said in a statement. “…recent comments…are inconsistent with that commitment.”

No, this isn’t yet another story about Google and YouTube and although it could be taken from today’s headlines, it’s a story from 2007 and highlights brand accountability:

A representative for Trojan condoms said yesterday that the company would no longer advertise on the “Opie & Anthony” show on a CBS-owned FM station in New York after a guest on another version of the show, on XM satellite radio, mused about sexually assaulting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, leading to a vulgar discussion.

In fact, perhaps the irony is that back in the day, it was the media that wouldn’t take ads from the industry. Racism, misogyny, politics and fear of change all played a part in the late-to-the-game portrayal of life in America…racial, gender, religious and otherwise.

On the other hand, brands have often pushed back on specific interest groups who took offense to placements in specific shows:

Neither Toyota Motor Sales USA nor Chrysler Group is buckling under pressure from the Parents Television Council to pull their advertising from FX Networks’ “Rescue Me.” The PTC sent letters to both advertisers asking them to withdraw from the show about New York City firefighters, said Melissa Caldwell, senior director-programs of the organization.

When they refused to pull their ads, the PTC issued press releases July 24 and Aug. 3 criticizing Toyota and Chrysler, respectively. The PTC called the show “cultural sewage” in the wake of recent episodes depicting graphic rape and brutal violence.

Chrysler’s response

A Chrysler spokeswoman said Jason Vines, the company’s VP-communications, faxed a letter to the PTC on July 31 saying the show was part of the automaker’s broad media buys to reach diverse audiences. She said Dodge and Jeep have advertised during the show, but the program is not on either brand’s current media schedule.

Mr. Vines’ letter went on to say Chrysler Group planned to continue advertising on a diverse range of programming. “We do this not with the intent to offend but with an appreciation for diversity in consumer viewing preferences,” he wrote. “It is also important to remember that the American consumer has the ability to turn on or off TV shows, as do PTC members.”

Dairy Queen and Alltel ended their ad support for “Rescue Me” after being contacted by the PTC, a PTC spokeswoman said.

The PTC “was founded in 1995 to ensure that children are not constantly assaulted by sex, violence and profanity on television and in other media,” according to the Chrysler release.

So, while some did pull their advertising, others did not and were clear that choice and consumer control were the deciding factors.

But today the issue of choice and control is different. Frankly, neither the brand nor the consumer has as much control as they once did. It’s nicely summed up here from The Wall Street Journal:

“The advantage is you have access to a million publishers and a billion articles. The disadvantage is you have access to a million publishers and a billion articles,” said David Rodnitzky, chief executive of ad agency 3Q Digital. “It is very challenging to truly control where an ad shows up.”

Seems to me, the first question is just how valuable the million/billion equation is and at what price for a brands future (not to mention current sales) are we blindly following a digital pathway because we are told to. From The New York Times:

In the zeal to follow consumers wherever they may roam on the internet, advertisers now risk bankrolling sites that are toxic to society, whether by amplifying manufactured political stories or by spreading conspiracy theories virulent enough to drive a man to walk into a Washington pizzeria with a gun. That has inserted a new ethical cost into the automated advertising equation, which promises companies large, desired audiences at low prices with little need for human intervention.

“I would much rather pay a little premium as a brand and go for verified sites,” Raja Rajamannar, the chief marketing officer of MasterCard, said, noting that the company mostly advertised on sites it had evaluated and approved. “But it’s a question again of how much and where. And I think all brands are doing this soul-searching at this point in time.”

Years ago, the Federal Trade Commission created a series of regulations designed to protect the “unsuspecting” consumer from fraudulent advertising:

As the Supreme Court has stated, “laws are made to protect the trusting as well as the suspicious.” Thus it is immaterial that an expert reader might be able to decipher the advertisement in question so as to avoid being misled.

For another post, I will extend that notion to fraudulent content…but think about this, editorial adjacency confers a dual credibility or lack thereof, if you will…on the content and on the advertising.

It makes the hate look more respectable and the brand look less…think about that because it’s the brand that loses.

And the convenient scapegoat of “programmatic” doesn’t wash anymore. From Digiday:

Thanks mostly to programmatic advertising, plenty of brands advertise on Breitbart, with advertising appearing next to stories like “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” and “Here’s Why There Ought to Be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths.”  Now, a number of them — including Allstate, Modcloth, Nest, Earthlink and SoFi — are blacklisting the website, under pressure in social media and even blaming the digital ad system for appearing there in the first place.

The bold type is my addition…and the problem, similar to Chrysler’s back in the day, is articulated by Warby Parker:

“Warby Parker does not buy advertising from Breitbart News Network directly. If one of our ads appears on a Breitbart site, it’s due to a sale through third-party ad networks or ad exchanges. We are looking into actively blocking our ads from appearing on Brietbart News Network,” [a  spokeswoman] said. As a company, we are committed to building a diverse and inclusive community that treats everyone with respect and dignity, and it’s important to us that our advertisements appear on sites that believe in those same values.”

So again, at what price?

My annual “Predictions from a Cloudy Crystal Ball,” which totaled seven points this year, have already borne me fruit.

My first two predictions are well on their way to actuality and my sense is that there is huge opportunity for brands and agencies to make a huge impact here.

1. Algorithms and anything programmatic will lose their luster this year. Not that we won’t use them; in fact, we have always relied on versions of the same–long before digital–but there will be a movement towards adding human insight, human emotion, appreciation for the serendipity of it all. My sense is that the Luddites will be those who still insist that they can make you buy the purple pants with the pink embroidered whales that you don’t want, simply by following your so-called data trail. Frankly, I’d stay away from them and instead gravitate towards the folks who combine the two.

2. Media will also return to its human roots. After all, it is humans who consume it…no? LOL…except for the trolls. By this I mean we will see a return to more accountability for placement of advertising and yes, by using that term I mean anything that is out there to influence an audience in any way. The excuse that your beautiful brand content (I’m being PC, call it what you will) shows up in the center of racist incitement because you bought audience programmatically will no longer wash. The dilemma, of course, is that those racists must be your audience…no? After all it was the algorithm that chose them. Another PEOPLE FIRST issue…

Maybe it’s the crystal ball thing or my roots but I was grabbed by the following Russian proverb:

“Don’t buy the house, buy the neighborhood.”

At one time, we could buy the house plain and simple. Today, we are having whole neighborhoods thrust upon us…time to change direction and take accountability for the neighborhood too. My bet is that the value of placement will go up and most of the million/billion will be relegated to where it belongs.

So, if hatred alone isn’t enough, think of the value you are losing.

What do you think?

Related posts: