If You Think Algorithms Help Your Brand, Think Again!

In response to consumer pressure, some companies such as Kellogg’s, BMW, Warby Parker and Allstate have issued guidelines not to allow their digital advertising to appear on Breitbart News. The site, famous for its invective-filled headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,”is the largest and therefore the symbolic epicenter of controversy over inflammatory fake news.

In a report entitled “How to Destroy the Business Model of Breitbart and Fake News,” The New York Times tells the story of an ad hoc Twitter group called “Sleeping Giants [which] became the hub of the new movement. The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys.”

As reported by The New York Times, Sleeping Giants has focused solely on Breitbart to begin with, but hopes to expand its focus.

Breitbart responded with an article titled “Fake News Plus Fascism: New York Times Urges Boycott of Breitbart” and accused the famously liberal New York Times of trying to limit free speech, of being ignorant of how Internet advertising really works and of manufacturing their own fake news as well.

My readers know that I am adamant about holding all news media sources (as opposed to distribution platforms) accountable for their words. Sadly, famed and trusted publications like Rolling Stone and even The New York Times have been less than scrupulous in their own self-policing. See more recently Glenn Greenwald’s criticism of false stories published by The Washington Post:

In the past six weeks, the Washington Post published two blockbuster stories about the Russian threat that went viral: one on how Russia is behind a massive explosion of “fake news,” the other on how it invaded the U.S. electric grid. Both articles were fundamentally false. Each now bears a humiliating editor’s note grudgingly acknowledging that the core claims of the story were fiction: The first note was posted a full two weeks later to the top of the original article; the other was buried the following day at the bottom…

…But while these debacles are embarrassing for the paper, they are also richly rewarding. That’s because journalists — including those at the Post — aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral, generating massive traffic for the Post (the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become).

After spreading the falsehoods far and wide, raising fear levels and manipulating U.S. political discourse in the process (both Russia stories were widely hyped on cable news), journalists who spread the false claims subsequently note the retraction or corrections only in the most muted way possible, and often not at all. As a result, only a tiny fraction of people who were exposed to the original false story end up learning of the retractions.

But frankly, that’s not my issue today—so hold the thought about media’s own accountability for another time.

My focus is on brands and brands alone.

You see, it’s fascinating to click on the Brietbart story I reference and see which ads follow you. I won’t embarrass the brands in question. Suffice it to say I am being served the same irrelevance (for the most part) that clogs up my New York Times pages, slows down my load times across a myriad of sites I view and otherwise fades from my memory before I even leave the page.

And that’s the point, no?

The trade publication eMarketer expects U.S. programmatic display ad spending to have reached $22.1 billion in 2016, accounting for 67 percent of all display ad spending. Through 2017, that could rise to $27.47 billion, or 72 percent.

Now let’s be clear: we have always had a form of programmatic buying, even back in the pre-digital days of big in-house ad agency media buying. The buying group would put out a call for a certain amount of Gross Rating Points (GRPs) determined by multiplying reach by frequency and the media representatives would respond, a few hours later, with a Cost Per Thousand (CPM) based on the targets in question.

After a negotiation about fixing the price, the secondary negotiation began about placement—broadcast or print—it made no difference. The issue was where the ads would appear, in what shows, across from what kind of editorial in a magazine, in what time slots and so on.

Often, brands would then pay a specific premium to upgrade a placement and, back in my day, every one of my clients had very, very strict guidelines as to what shows they would never, ever appear in and what type of editorial was not suitable for adjacency to their adverts.

In fact, context was an often discussed and debated concept back in the day, and for a while it did seem to be a driver in digital as we hailed native advertising and touted the ability to interact in meaningful and consumer-relevant ways.

As Computerworld stated in its 2004 article “Defending Boundaries“:

But there’s no denying the fact that the online world has established distinctly different (and uncomfortably cozy) editorial/advertising adjacency standards. Online ads are sold by matching desired keywords with related content, making sure that an ad about storage, for example, will pop up near stories about storage. And the latest technology developments in online “contextual” advertising now let an advertising link be embedded inside the actual story.

Yet today we seem to be hiding behind algorithms and, worse, and context seems less important than cheap reach. Ergo, I follow the audience I bought without a sense of purpose, understanding or insight as to their motivation or reason for being where they are.

In other words, brands looking for me will follow me from The New York Times to Breitbart, without any thought, even though I might find Breitbart horrific and go there only to document my view of their incitement.

On the other hand, people who frequent those sites are—we are led to believe by the ad tech folks—the right audience for the brands that follow them there as well…a conundrum as it seems that more people are clicking (click bait is as old as “Free Sex!” on DM envelopes) on Fake News and than on whatever passes for real these days.

iMedia makes the point, most succinctly, in a recent post, “Will ‘fake news’ have real impact on digital advertising?

For all the reasons above, brand has been decoupled from context. In the quest to manage risk in the form of costs — costs of inventory, costs of managing it — advertising was untethered from place. Machines somewhere in the ether-sphere exchange data and inputs, and turn them into outputs. So long as those outputs are consistent with a numerical objective, that is all that mattered. And that would be all that mattered if the concern were only machines and the numbers they crunch. But where a brand appears does matter when humans get involved. Not all human behavior and human reaction can be rendered into machine-readable form. We feel things. We react. We are irrational, only to rationalize later. Environment is something we feel, react, and can be irrational about. Editorial adjacency used to be a default setting on all advertising. This was true in the early stages of digital, too, when planning online was a lot like planning print. But when the data got more voluminous and the technology to manage it all got both better and more complex, thinking shifted to a place where a machine-construct of who you were talking to mattered most. Maybe this is the inevitable conclusion of data saturation running into a faith in one-to-one marketing.

The implication being that all that data seems focused on one outcome…the cheapest way to blanket to a message as opposed to the best way to target…context and content, which seems to me to be the lesson of recent elections, around the world, lost and won—data in and of itself without thought and insight is mere bits and bytes.

Another interesting and, I would argue, disturbing piece of information is about the ad tech present on the fake news sites. It would seem that, in fact, they are light on tech and have fewer data points to share, which must makes one wonder how then they can compete in bids against very data-rich sites. And just how good and close is their targeting? Hmm. According to a Digiday study:

A new study shows that in fact, mainstream media sites are far bigger users of ad tech, which is blamed for eroding the user experience and ultimately contributing to ad blocking. Mezzobit, a tool that lets publishers audit ad tech on websites, found that mainstream news sites have almost twice as much third-party technology as the fake or misleading news sites.

For the study, Mezzobit took a list of 96 so-called propaganda sites compiled by researcher Jonathan Albright (Mezzobit calls them “opinionated news sites” to avoid being polarizing) and compared them to an equal number of mainstream sites from the Alexa top 100 and analyzed the ad and marketing tech used on them, including ad units, analytics beacons and tracking pixels.

Publishers on Albright’s list included sites associated with fake, misleading or ideological news. They often have legit-sounding names like ABCnews.com.co and The Political Insider but have published false stories claiming the Pope endorsed Donald Trump for president and that President Obama banned the Pledge of Allegiance.

Because they’re light on ad tech, the fake news sites actually have some attributes that are thought of as positive: The fake news sites tend to have lighter pages, so they ran 8 percent faster. The mainstream sites do more tracking, and dropped 129 percent more cookies (a median of 167 cookies per page), resulting in 19 percent more tracking, per the Mezzobit report.

And again, let me be clear, the issue of targeting and adjacency is not new, but we seem to have lost our way, at least since 2004. The following is an outtake from a Computerworld post:

First, an apology to our readers. We screwed up last week in the placement of an advertisement from the Harvard Business School Press promoting Nick Carr’s new book, Does IT Matter? The ad ended up directly opposite the lead story in our management section [“Follow, Don’t Lead,” QuickLink 46432], which featured excerpts from that book and an interview with the intrepid Mr. Carr.

That never should have happened. An editorial/advertising adjacency like that is an embarrassment and a serious concern to the editors of Computerworld. We have a checks-and-balances process (clearly, not a flawless one) that is supposed to ensure that a story about, say, Microsoft doesn’t end up sitting next to an ad hawking Windows products. The same goes for book reviews, Q&As and any other stories that we write.

Does ad placement really matter so much? Editors think so, believing that such pairings signal to readers that the independence or objectivity of the editorial content is suspect. It raises the concern that we’ve struck some unholy alliance with the advertiser — even when we most definitely have not.

But I’ve been talking here about print publications only. The whole advertising adjacency issue changes dramatically — and much more disturbingly — in the online world. Ads are sold online by linking them to certain keywords in stories, thus enabling more accurate “targeting” of relevant editorial content by the advertisers. The technique is called contextual advertising. That same Windows story that we would whisk away to another page in order to avoid a Microsoft ad would actually be sold online with the promise of greater adjacency to a story about Windows.

This has always bothered me. We follow one set of journalistic practices in print but disregard them online, as though the change of media channel wiped away a quaint little tradition. But as the Web exploded onto the publishing scene, it was deemed a radically different media “experience.” The technology enabled new advertising tactics, and editors’ concerns were brushed aside by marketers with pop-up ads to sell.

What once disturbed us—because it went against the narrative of where we were saying the digital world was going—has collapsed into a morass of yes-we-target-better and yes-we-blanket-broadcast in ways that make old-fashioned TV buying seem more accurate and thoughtful.

To be fair…this is not about Breitbart alone or even fake news, but includes hate sites and other unsavory places where advertising ends up because people are there.

So as not to confuse myself, let me recap:

  1. Brands need to be more accountable for where their ads appear
  2. Whatever happened to context?
  3. It appears that our algorithmic targeting is not quite what it seems– as in using heavy data feeds to precisely target
  4. The consumer you are cutting off is the consumer who buys your goods…no? What is the implication?

Is it a full on moral issue as The New York Times writes?

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.

And is the solution a return to the future? From Mashable:

Victor Wong, CEO of ad tech firm Thunder Industries, which handles creative work for programmatic ads, said he says the programmatic industry is already moving toward more directly negotiated deals between advertisers and sites and away from anonymous large-scale auctions. “That’s the minority in programmatic right now, but many people think it will reach the majority of the industry in the next year or two,” Wong said.

Irving Babbit, an American academic who spanned the 19th and 20th centuries posited:

“The industrial revolution has tended to produce everywhere great urban masses that seem to be increasingly careless of ethical standards.”

Is our corollary that the digital revolution has spawned great masses of data that seem to make us increasingly careless of ethical standards?

How would you answer my four questions? Or add to them?

I put it to you.

What’s your view?

P.S. the ads are not native to Breitbart, they follow YOU…so watch what you search.




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