Masters Of The Fine Art Of Programmatic Exploitation

Blue-chip advertisers spend $13 billion annually funding the most deplorable digital content -- so-called “made-for-advertising” websites, or MFAs -- publishing fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories or just unsavory consumer experiences laden with spam, pop-ups, and auto-play videos whose main purpose is to siphon off ad dollars via programmatic media buys.

That’s one of the findings of a new report of an in-depth study released this morning by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which identified that the MFAs are the lion's share of an estimated $20 billion of wasted ad spending going toward an $88 billion global programmatic marketplace that can be recaptured with a little hard work.

The report, which is based on an analysis of log-level data representing $123 million in programmatic media buys from 21 ANA members, is the result of an RFP the association commissioned two years ago, which was conducted by PwC, TAG TrustNet and Kroll, which uncovers just how out-of-control programmatic media-buying has become.

And while it is focused mainly on the bottom line and does not explicitly address the social harm that comes from funding misinformation at a global scale, it at least provides the first concrete steps for how to take control of it.

It isn’t easy and will require some elbow grease to fix and getting in the weeds of log-level data in order to identify and remove the unsavory content from programmatic media buys, but the ANA’s insights -- and those much-needed steps outlined in its recommendations -- couldn’t come at a better time, as a new generation of AI-generated news and information publishing makes the process of MFAs so much easier to proliferate.

Data from a new AI-generated news tracking service launched by NewsGuard found that over a one-month period the number of such sites grew threefold from 49 to 150. And they’re just getting started.

Based on my own cheeky, back-of-the-envelope analysis of NewsGuard’s data, I wrote a follow-up column estimating AI-generated news sites could add thousands of new, unreliable news outlets each year, many of which only exist because of the ability to generate ad dollars via the programmatic marketplace.

Many of them also exist for other nefarious purposes, including not just opportunistic misinformation, but willful disinformation explicitly intended to create confusion and discord, but which ironically also has the ability to capture programmatic ad dollars, meaning blue chip advertisers like the ones who pooled their data for the ANA report are culpable -- directly or indirectly -- for their existence.

In 2017, MediaPost awarded Russia’s Internet Research Agency one of our Agency of the Year awards for the ingenious way it exploited digital publishing, especially the programmatic marketplace, to disseminate bogus content that helped hack the 2016 U.S. elections.

We may never know the magnitude of that influence, but we do know that the technology -- in the wrong hands -- is highly leverageable. And we are now learning that they don’t necessarily have to be human hands.

One of the greatest ironies of my career spent covering advertising and media-buying -- especially the emergence of machine-based platforms enabling unsavory content and outcomes to scale so rapidly -- is that much of it has been underwritten by advertisers who probably weren’t thinking about the unintended consequences of deploying their massive ad budgets that way. Until it’s too late.

The rapid rise of digital media -- especially social media -- was initially underwritten by big blue-chip brands, until the platforms got smart enough to engineer solutions that enabled the small and medium-sized businesses to tap into with the same efficiency as the world’s biggest brands, but not necessarily with the same media-buying standards.

Today, big brands are the hostages of the digital advertising ecosystem they jump-started, and often have little sway over its directions or ultimate outcomes. They are just along for the ride.

By this point, I honestly don’t know how much of an effect it would have if all of the ANA members immediately applied the steps outlined in the new report -- or even in an even deeper set of recommendations expected to be released in a follow on report scheduled for later this year -- but I do believe it’s important that they do so. If for no better reason than their own bottom lines.

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