Programmatic advertising: the Google comeuppance

Matt Scheckner is the founder of an Advertising Week jamboree, which was held  recently in London.  He is quoted as saying, “One of our biggest challenges is to make sure your advert doesn’t end up next to a recruitment video for Isis”.

Online adverts via Google and Youtube et al have been appearing next to extremist content, and advertisers have, in consequence, been pulling their online ads.   Much of this is because of the explosion in programmatic advertising, where advertisers use algorithms to automatically buy, sell and place advertisements.

There are now 2.7 billion smartphone users and there will be five billion by 2020.  Add to this an explosive growth in digital video advertising, and some form of automation does make sense, that is, if it is done well and  allows advertisers to target specific consumers at the right time and with the right message.  But it can also allow them to chase audiences without regard to who those people might be.  The dilemma for the industry is that chasing audiences without checking on what sites those audiences might be using leads to the mess Google now faces: indiscriminate ads in inappropriate places.  This has apparently been an “open” secret in the industry for a while, and is at the heart of programmatic advertising.

It is possible to blackball certain sites. For instance, the alt-right news website Breitbart has faced a sustained campaign to get advertisers to pull their adverts. Alternatives are either to hire staff to vet websites – time-consuming and expensive – or create a “white list” of so-called approved sites.  The issue comes down to cost – how much more companies are prepared to pay to advertise and how much consumers are prepared to pay for their products.  “We all want the cheapest [advertising],” commented an employee of Unilever, “but it comes at a cost.”

To complicate the jobs of advertisers there is the increased politicization of advertising.  It seems that younger people like their favourite product advertising to take sides, whether it is on issues of diversity, immigration, health policy,  limate change or tax. In the UK last October, Lego ended its promotional giveaways with the Daily Mail amid a campaign to stop firms advertising with some newspapers over “divisive” coverage of migrants. In the US at the 2017 Super Bowl, Airbnb ran an advert criticising Donald Trump’s stance on immigration, declaring “acceptance starts with all of us”.

My comment: One has hardly sent a bouquet of flowers to a bereaved member of ones family and the flower company concerned is sending you ads. You already know about the supplier, and hopefully won’t have to send bouquets (for the reason stated) too often!   It gets downright spooky, the speed with which you get targeted.  How much of it is wasted? I don’t know; nor do they.  How often, for instance , do people arrange for a delivery of flowers to a friend or family member?

Maybe algorithms will become smarter; maybe some clever company will find a way of advertising to us before we need their products, not after?  Meanwhile, should we be sorry for Google and the advertisers? A resounding “No!”