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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.

Look to the Side Without Looking to the Side

One of the award-winning Mercedes-Benz print ads that promotes a radar-sensor technology to help drivers see into their blind spots. I like them — fun, visually-arresting games with Photoshop that suggest what the product does. My kids absolutely love them — what crazy faces!!

More versions of the ad at Buzzfeed. And here’s the video that explains how it works.

(Thanks, Ben!)

Logos Make a Mark on Five Year Olds

I’m guessing you’ve already seen this video made by graphic designer Adam Ladd and his five-year-old daughter. She thinks Google Chrome looks like a beachball, and “beachballs are really colorful!” To her Jaguar, Puma and Greyhound logos are all the same — cheetahs! — which is probably great for Greyhound, but not so great for the other two that a young innocent set of eyes can’t tell their logos apart from the one for a long-distance bus line. And I love her interpretation of the Golden Arches: An M for McDonalds that’s made out of french fries. (Does everyone think that? I never made the french fry connection.)

What’s most interesting to me, though, is how thoroughly the logos in her life have come stand in for whole categories of products and services. I’m guessing her family doesn’t own an X-Box, but her friend does and she thinks of its logo as “the thing that controls the TV at Ryan’s house.” She knows that the Mercedes logo is attached to cars and recognizes the Pepsi logo as “the pop from the pizza place.” Starbucks and BP symbols have achieved even more: They’ve become visual synonyms for coffee and gas, products this kids is still years away from consuming herself.

US Drivers Bought Only 469 Smart Cars Last Month

Smart sold 2,556 Smart Cars in the first half of 2011, which is 25% fewer than the sold in the first half of 2010. In July its new owner, Mercedes-Benz USA, launched a TV campaign for the brand. “The approach may be working,” says Mediapost, “Smart reported an uptick last month versus last September: 469 ForTwo cars delivered, compared to 422 vehicles sold in September 2010.” A new spot launched earlier this week.

But you sort of have to wonder — is TV advertising the right approach for a car company that sells fewer than 6,000 cars a year? MINI sold that many cars in the US in a single month, just 3 months after its North American launch in 2002. And MINI spent a mere $13 million that year, none of it on TV.

Mercedes “Projection Ads” Let You See Through Walls

Mercedes Benz – Transparent Walls (English) from Benjamin Busse on Vimeo.

“For the PRE-SAFE precrash system from Mercedes-Benz, we made chaotic traffic intersections safer. Everybody was able to look around the corners into the streets as if the walls were transparent, and could therefore detect potential hazards in time to avoid them. To achieve this, we used a camera to film what was going on around the corner. The images were projected onto an 18/1-format billboard on a building corner so all motorists and cyclists could see them.”

Agency: Jung von Matt/Elbe. More at NOTCOT.

Mercedes and Its 100 Year Fight Against Noxious Emissions

From horse poop to carbon dioxide, Mercedes’s new spot positions the automaker as a long-time leader in emissions reduction.

(Via BrandFreak.)

A Cautionary Tale: eMercedesBenz Can't Convince Mercedes To Sponsor It (Yet)

Mercedes SUV

A car-buff friend of mine — who is, by the way, a hip, Ivy-league educated 30-something with an income that would make him highly desirable to most luxury brands — sent me a post that made him sad. One of his favorite car sites, eMercedesBenz

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I Sell the Dead video

, pitched Mercedes on sponsoring the site and was turned down. From the post:

“We wish we could say that Mercedes shared our passion of the project, but the truth is, they didn’t. There were various objections to the proposal, the majority of which we believe were inaccurate. Ultimately, however, we believe the basis of their objection can be summarized in a single word: complacency. Mercedes believes that if they already have you as a customer, it’s not worth the expenditure to keep you, due to the fact they’re already adept enough at doing so. They also believe that their current advertising approach is efficient enough at reaching new customers.”

My reaction was a little different than my friend’s. Look, it’s no fun to be rejected, especially by a brand you’ve dedicated yourself to publishing a site about. And, in this economic climate, generating revenue to pay the bills at a small business is a life-or-death proposition. But the team at eMercedesBenz did what most niche publications never get the opportunity to do: They got an actual meeting with the client-side marketing decision-makers at a tier-one global brand like Mercedes. According to Quantcast, eMercedesBenz has an average monthly audience of around 15,000 readers V for Vendetta hd

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. While that puts ChasNote’s audience reach to shame, it’s still a tiny number in the world of automotive advertising.

Brand managers at places like Mercedes aren’t snobs, only willing to meet with reps from Dow Jones and CNBC, and only with *them* if the venue is 21 Club; they just need a level of scale before they can have a serious talk with you. The act of doing business with a partner takes resources — time, employees and mental energy — even before the first dollar is spent. In an economic moment when most companies are cutting costs and scaling back staff, most companies (including luxury brands) are feeling pressure to reduce their number of partners rather than add new ones.

eMercedesBenz Team: I can relate to your disappointment, but you should also take pride in your success. You made it to the table. Keep at it — you’ll get the business eventually. As my colleague James Gross

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likes to say, “making diamonds takes time and pressure.”