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Alcohol Brands and Car Services Bid for Drunk Driver Story

I love programmatic banner buying as much as the next guy, but some days I can’t help worrying about the future of online advertising.

Of course there’s the viewability crisis, where 54% of banners are delivered outside the viewable area of a browser, and therefore can never be seen by human eyes. Among ads delivered by ad networks, it’s even worse: 69% of them aren’t viewable. Then there are all those ads served intentionally (and fraudulently) to software bots trying to act like web-surfing consumers. Even among what’s left — viewable ads served to human beings — I would argue that plenty of money is wasted on over-aggressive re-targeting.

And then I came across this.

Drunk Driving Headline

A friend submitted an anonymous tip to the ChasNote hot-line. It’s a link to this story at LA Times (headline above) introducing new allegations of drunk driving to the ongoing story of booze-fueled violence by a Los Angeles Dodgers fan against Bryan Snow, a fan of the rival San Francisco Giants. The submitter was pointing out an awkwardly placed ad for a brand of vodka, but he didn’t include a screenshot, only a link to the story.

Tanqueray Ad LA Times

By the time I followed the link to the LA Times, the vodka ad had been replaced by this one (above), for Tanqueray gin. It appears to the team here at ChasNote that some automated ad-targeting software — software developed by an ad-network that manages certain inventory for the LA Times — created a bidding war among alcoholic beverage brands for this drunk driver story. Oy vey. And, for extra credit, it placed an ad for Hertz Rental Car below the Tanqueray ad. Really unfortunate, eh?

But, wait, you say. It’s quite the opposite! It’s brilliant re-targeting!

I did, in fact, book a car with Hertz at its website the night before, so this is actually state-of-the-art targeting aimed at predisposed customers, right? It’s wasteful targeting, in my view. I literally bought the company’s services 12 hours prior, and if I book another Hertz car 12 hours later it’s because I had a good experience interacting with the product and personnel. An advertisement of any kind, at that point, would have nothing to do with it. Offering me a 30% discount when I’m likely (given my behavior in the most recent 12 hours) to pay at full retail is actually kind of stupid.

I’m also a fan of Tanqueray’s product, though I haven’t made that official in Facebook nor have I visited the brand’s site in the past year. Maybe someone’s been combing through my receipts from the grocery store?

Still. It’s awful, in the opinion of this longtime Hertz and Tanqueray customer, to see these brands running alongside a drunk-driving story. Not great to see them running alongside each other, either. I’ve got to believe we can do better.

Fraud, Invisible Ads and Silly Targeting

Robots Watching TV
(Photo: “Robots Watching Telly” from Nice Paper Toys.)

Mercedes-Benz recently accused Rocket Fuel, the giant ad network, of fraud, asserting 57% of the impressions the car-maker bought on the network’s websites were seen only by non-human software bots. From the FT:

Part of a recent Mercedes-Benz online advertising campaign was viewed more often by automated computer programmes than by human beings, according to documents seen by the Financial Times.

The ads were inadvertently placed on to fraudulent websites by Rocket Fuel, a Nasdaq-listed ad technology company that went public last September with a market capitalisation of nearly $1bn.

Rocket Fuel, in a blog post, refutes those numbers, claiming only 6% of the Mercedes-Benz impressions were fraudulent, and that they replaced them with ad impressions served to actual humans “before any bills were even sent.” In the same post, they tout their prowess in identifying and declining fraudulent inventory. “We reject approximately 40% of all ad space daily due to its failure to pass our own bot and brand-safety screens.” Good for you, Rocket Fuel, but bad for the rest of the industry. Forty-percent?? What’s 40% of $43 billion in digital ad spending?

Of course, the industry recently made a small leap forward. At least regarding the online ads that are aimed at humans — 54% of which, according to Comscore, are delivered to parts of the web that human eyes can’t see, below the fold or otherwise outside the browser’s viewport. The IAB has formalized a new viewability standard. No longer will publishers or ad networks (those that comply, anyway) charge for ad impressions delivered outside the visible, on-screen space on a consumer’s screen. From now on, half (or more) of the ad unit must have the opportunity to be seen, and must stay there for at least one second. If you’re starting from zero seconds and invisible, I guess, this is progress. Modest, incremental progress, but it’s a start.

Numbers like that — 40% is fraud, 54% can’t be seen by humans — can depress a person. But the ads that aren’t invisible or software scams, at least they’re super targeted and awesome, right? It’s downright scary how those online ad algorithms know absolutely everything about us, right? Sometime I’m not so sure.

Roman Mars Tweet

Earlier this week I saw this tweet from Roman Mars, the prominent design and architecture journalist. The New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff calls him “the Ira Glass of design.” Meanwhile the marketing team at School of Visual Arts wants to send him back to school, and is spending marketing dollars to pursue its case.

It struck me that those emails and postcards would qualify as excellent, near-perfect targeting in the world of digital advertising. Last weekend I did two things online. One, I visited the website for a touristy Chinatown restaurant (Z and Y) to get their address, and, later that night, ate there with my in-laws. Two, I bought a Welsh Love Spoon as a present for my daughter. For the rest of the week Google served me ads for Z and Y Restaurant and promotions for Welsh Love Spoons.

Silly, right?

Do the ad-targeting algorithms think I’m due to go back to Z and Y so soon? And if I did go back to Z and Y a week later, shouldn’t the chefs and waiters ad Z and Y, not Google, get the credit for my return trip? And the Welsh Love Spoons. Is there something in my personal Big Data that says I’ve suddenly become an obsessive Welsh Love Spoon collector? I can attest to the fact that these ads connected with human eyes — for a full handful of seconds! — but I’m still tempted to call them a scam.