Programmatic Advertising Is Running Amok

Having spent many years in the direct marketing business, I’m usually amused by examples of target marketing gone awry. My personal favorite happened when I was on Amazon purchasing a cell phone bracket for my bicycle.

Target stock imageHaving spent many years in the direct marketing business, I’m usually amused by examples of target marketing gone awry. My personal favorite happened when I was on Amazon purchasing a cell phone bracket for my bicycle. Amazon’s algorithm generated this suggestion:

Amazon wants Chuck to be a pirateNow I don’t know how frequently the pirate boots and the tri-corner hat are bought together with the cell phone mount, but I have to say that the combination was tempting for a few minutes.

The fact remains that direct marketing is not perfect. Many years ago, I made a donation to my alma mater, Rutgers College. The student on the phone asked if I wanted to designate my gift to a particular part of the University, and when I said, “No,” he said, “Well I’m in the Glee Club and we could sure use the money. Will you designate to the Glee Club?”

“Sure,” I said.

For decades now, I’ve been getting mail addressed, “Dear Glee Club Alumnus.” One day, I will attend a Glee Club reunion, certain that many people will remember my contribution to the tenor section.

While these harmless examples of imprecision are humorous, there’s nothing funny about the current exodus of major advertisers from the Google ad network and YouTube. Programmatic ad placement is a boon to target marketing, but like most direct marketing, it’s not perfect.

Major advertisers are in a tizzy over how to control where their ads appear … and the Google ad network is scrambling to get control over placement, as they should be. Advertisers need to protect their brands from appearing in an environment that can harm them.

Just a few examples: Ads for IHOP, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, “The Lego Batman Movie,” “Chips” and others have recently popped up among nude videos from everyday users or X-rated posts from porn-star influencers. Ad Age 3/6/17

A Nordstrom ad for Beyonce’s Ivy Park clothing line appeared on Breitbart next to this headline: NYTimes 3/26/17

Chuck's take on Nordstrom appearing on BreitbartHere’s a great attempt at an explanation for this juxtaposition:

“What we do is, we match ads and the content, but because we source the ads from everywhere, every once in a while somebody gets underneath the algorithm and they put in something that doesn’t match.  We’ve had to tighten our policies and actually increase our manual review time and so I think we’re going to be okay,” Schmidt told the FOX Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo. Fox News 3/23/17

Appearing next to hate speech is particularly problematic for brands:

Google-displayed ads for Macy’s and the genetics company 23andMe appeared on the website My Posting Career, which describes itself as a “white privilege zone,” next to a notice saying the site would offer a referral bonus for each member related to Adolf Hitler. Washington Post 3/24/17

The Wall Street Journal reported Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Dish Network Corp. suspended spending on all Google advertising, except targeted search ads. Starbucks Corp. and General Motors Co. said they were pulling their ads from YouTube. FX Networks, part of 21st Century Fox Inc., said it was suspending all advertising spending on Google, including search ads and YouTube … Wal-Mart said: “The content with which we are being associated is appalling and completely against our company values.”
Ads for Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Toyota Motor Corp., Dish Network, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Geico unit and Google’s own YouTube Red subscription service appeared on racist videos with the slur “n–” in the title. Wall Street Journal 3/24/17

And as difficult as it is for the ad networks to control, brands have their own challenges trying to protect themselves from undesirable placements. Different departments running different campaigns with different agencies cause ads to appear on corporate blacklisted sites. BMW of North America has encountered that issue because its marketing plan does not extend to dealerships. While the company does not buy ads on Breitbart, Phil DiIanni, a spokesman, noted that “dealerships are independent businesses and decide for themselves on their local advertising.” NYTimes 3/26/17

Clearly our technology’s ability to target has outstripped our ability to control it. And while it remains to be seen what controls will be put in place, it’s likely that, as always, target marketing won’t be perfect.