Two days ago, the New York Times said AT&T and Johnson & Johnson were pulling their ads from YouTube, concerned that “Google is not doing enough to prevent brands from appearing next to offensive material, like hate speech.” Yesterday, Business Insider said “more than 250” advertisers were bailing as well. These reports came on the heels of one Guardian story that said Audi, HSBC, Lloyds, McDonald’s, L’Oréal, Sainsbury’s, Argos, the BBC and Sky were doing the same in the U.K., and another Guardian story that said O2, Royal Mail and Vodaphone were joining the boycott as well.
Agencies placing those ads on YouTube are shocked, shocked! that ads for these fine brands are showing up next to “extremist material,” and therefore sponsoring it. They blame Google, and so does most of the press coverage as well. So far, anyway.
Here’s what almost nobody reporting on this debacle is saying: Brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire chase eyeballs. Put another way, brands think they’re buying online advertising while they’re really buying adtech. Since adtech systems are automated and biased toward finding the cheapest ways to hit eyeballs with ads, some ads show up on unsavory sites, just like the eyeballs do.
Folks, this is the way adtech was designed to work. And that’s why expecting adtech to fix itself is a losing bet. Advertisers are the ones to fix it, and they can do it by firing adtech and its agents and going back to sponsoring reputable broadcasters and publishers. Simple as that. If they want to do “interest-based” advertising, they should do it to people who have opted into it, consciously and expressly. So if L’Oreal wants to get a conversation going with customers of Lancôme, Giorgio Armani or The Body Shop, they should do it by those customers’ grace, not because the robots they’ve hired guess those customers might be interested, based on surveillance-gathered personal data.
Ad choices, the “Interactive” advertising industry’s system that claims to “give you control” over “how information about your interests is used for relevant advertising” (after you click on one of these little symbols on the corner of an ad: ) is nothing more than way to opt out of surveillance—and far from all of it. If there is a real market on the receiving end for “interest based advertising,” let’s have a standard system that puts full control in the hands of individuals, and speaks through open code and protocols to any and all publishers and broadcasters. Anything less will just be another top-down industry gloss on adtech.
The marketing world and media covering it both need to face the fact that adtech only looks like advertising, and that to continue calling it advertising is pure misdirection.
Adtech looks like advertising because, as I explain in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”
This whole problem wouldn’t exist if the alien replica wasn’t chasing spied-on eyeballs, and if advertisers still sponsored desirable media the old-fashioned way.
It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and a vector for malware. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that gives fake news a business model, because the fake is easier to produce than the real, and pays just as well.
Real advertising never did any of those things, because it was never personal. It was aimed at populations selected by the media they choose to watch, listen to or read. To reach those people, you buy space or time on those media. You sponsor those media because those media also have brand value.
You can’t sponsor media through adtech because adtech isn’t built for that. On the contrary, adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it only cares about eyeballs. It also does approximately squat to create or raise the value of the brands it promotes. Can you name one brand produced by adtech? And how many $billions or $trillions have been spent on adtech so far?
Brands will be far better served by sponsoring media they (and their non-brain-stolen agencies) know, like and trust. That’s what produced brands in the first place, what still what makes brands familiar to whole populations, and what still sponsors worthy publications and the journalism they contain.
An open question is if agencies can be programmatic online without spying on people. Because spying is where the problem lies. That’s why Do Not Track became a thing, and why ad blocking hockey-sticked when the adtech industry and publishers together gave the middle finger to people’s polite request not to be tracked. These were legitimate market reactions to abuses to customers by companies spying on them.
Adtech’s rationalizations are all around putting the “right message in front of the right people at the right time,” and aiming those messages with spyware-harvested Big Data. Both of those are direct marketing purposes, not those of brand advertising.
So yeah, it makes sense for Google and Facebook to make sure sponsored content is “brand safe.” But that won’t solve the real problem, which is adtech.
It also won’t be easy for the big platforms to fix their adtech systems. Consider, for example, the egg that was splattered on Mark Zuckerberg’s face by Facebook’s own adtech when he posted his insistence that “99% of what people see is authentic” and “only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” and fraudulent ads ran right next to his post. Medium’s Ev Williams also experienced the same kind of adtech-aimed fakery.
It’s the agencies’ job to show that programmatic advertising can sponsor the best content the old fashioned way. And it’s the advertisers’ job to fire adtech in the meantime.
P.S.: I need a better image than the one I came up with at the top. Instead of making the Ad Choices thingie look like it’s being fired, I made it look like a burning bush. So it’s just a placeholder for now.