We just think we are.
A few days after the January 6th insurrection, shareholders at two major companies filed a resolution asking that Home Depot and Omnicom undertake audits to prove that their ad budgets haven’t been funding disinformation and extremism online.
This, as far as we know, is the first time the link between programmatic advertising budgets and disinformation has been flagged at the shareholder level. The lowly and mundane ad audit is suddenly in the spotlight!
Investor scrutiny is probably not a welcome development for the $300 billion advertising industry — particularly the brand safety wing — which has for years coalesced around the claim that ad-funded disinformation is a problem they mostly have under control.
This isn’t the first time ad tech will be scrutinized, of course. For years, the adtech industry has been responding to complaints about questionable placements with the same answer: “Oh THAT? That was just a little oversight. Hang on a second, we’re going to give you more control over your ad placements. We’re going to help you get even more granular.“
More control over our ad placements? Who can argue with that? Well, we’re about to.
Sure little man, you can fly the plane!
The adtech industry has good reason for wanting advertisers to feel like we’re in control: it takes the heat off them and puts advertisers to work instead.
Google was the first to catch onto the appeal of introducing new brand safety features that absolves them of further responsibility. When UK agencies discovered that their ads were funding extremists, Google was summoned to Parliament and asked to come back with a fix. Two months later, they rolled out their Big Idea: “Page-level enforcements for more granular policy actions”
“To allow more precise enforcements, and provide you with feedback about policy issues as we identify them, we’re introducing page-level enforcements. A page-level enforcement affects individual pages where violations of the AdSense Program Policies are found. As a result, ad serving is restricted or disabled on those pages. Ads will continue to serve where no policy violations have been found, either at the page- or site-level.” (emphasis ours).
It was a solidly underhanded maneuver. On the one hand, page-level enforcement offered more granular control. On the other hand, no marketing team in the world has time or resources to seek out and block individual pages on every website on the internet.
But that hasn’t stopped adtech from running with the marketing ploy that more controls means you’re in control.
Granularity, or the concept of giving advertisers ever more filters and settings, has since become a core strategy in an industry that realizes they can continue to invite disinformation and extremism into their inventory (in the name of choice) while putting the onus on advertisers to sniff it out and block it themselves (in the name of control).
You have the power to choose exactly where you want your ads to go, they say. It’s just functionally impossible to use.
It sure looks like we’re not in charge
That kid is not actually flying a plane and you are not calling the shots on your ad placements. Ad tech has locked us into a system that makes us believe that marketers are in control. Sure, they let us push the buttons…
What topics or categories do we want to avoid?
What is our risk tolerance?
Do we want to only be on “positive sentiment” content?
But we don’t know what the buttons do. A handful of product and engineering teams do — and they are making the real strategic decisions behind the scenes: They decide what content is deemed positive and negative. They decide what risky content looks like. They decide what a piece of content is about and apply this across billions of articles. And from what we’ve learned through their leaked data, it doesn’t look like it even works.
But let’s pretend for a moment that it did. Have you ever tried to rate an article the way that brand safety technology does? Try it now. Here are some articles:
A CNN article about a Black Lives Matter protest
A Daily Mail article about Elliot Page, who recently came out as trans
The Root’s obituary of Mary Wilson, a co-founding member of the musical group The Supremes
Al Jazeera’s coverage of multiple attacks in Afghanistan
One of the many Epoch Times articles about bunnies
How would you rate these articles for brand safety?
What topic or category would you put each article in? (Use the IAB Tech Lab’s Content Taxonomy for reference.
How you rate each article for “risk”? (Low, medium, or high)
How would you rate each article for “sentiment?” (Negative, neutral, or positive?)
We couldn’t even apply this rubric by hand to one article without scratching our heads.
And if you were to send this exercise to your friends, we’re certain that each of you would come up with different answers, and none of you would be sure that you were right. As readers, we all interpret different articles differently.
What’s the end game here? We’re not in control - we’ve given it all up to to someone else.
We need control, not more controls
If adtech gets any more granular, it may disappear up its own butt. Now, we don’t want that. That leaves us with one option: start zooming out.
As marketers, it is our job to connect with consumers. Every day, marketers add or subtract from our brand equity ‘bank accounts’ by associating and disassociating with ideas, causes, people, and products.
When we advertise on respected publishers, we gain a little bit of their brand equity. When we advertise on disreputable publishers, we lend them a bit of ours. Ad placements are a powerful way to live out our brand values.
Our clients — mostly marketers and people who work in brand and reputation — get this right away. Here’s how they might break down the above list of articles with ease:
CNN is brand SAFE for most brands because it adheres to journalistic standards.
The Daily Mail is brand UNSAFE for many brands because it can be racist and misogynist and it doesn’t consistently adhere to journalistic standards.
The Root is consistently brand SAFE for most brands because it adheres to journalistic standards.
Al Jazeera is brand SAFE for most brands because it adheres to journalistic standards.
The Epoch Times is consistently brand UNSAFE because it regularly publishes disinformation.
The ultimate decision depends on each team’s brand values. Do they need any more granular controls for this? No.
Stay safe folks. Check your ads.
Thanks for reading!
Nandini & Claire