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.

Postcard From Pop-Up Magazine

Pop-Up Magazine Program

I had so much fun at Pop-Up Magazine on Thursday night.

The Kitchen Sisters introduced us to “bone records” from Soviet Russia. When vinyl was hard to come by, creative music fans figured out how to groove pirated American and European pop songs into recycled X-ray film. I especially like this one: Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel stamped over an image of someone’s actual heart and ribcage.

Bone Record of Elvis Presley Heartbreak Hotel

Jon Mooallem profiled the longest-burning incandescent lightbulb, at the fire station in Livermore, California. It celebrated its 100th birthday in 2001, and it’s still glowing 24/7. You can see it in action live on the Internet, but they don’t make webcams like they used to make lightbulbs — they’ve had to replace the webcam twice.

Livermore Fire Station Lightbulb

Driving from San Francisco to Providence, RI, in the summer of 1990, I listened to the audiobook for Moby Dick. It was unabridged, 21 cassette tapes of uninterrupted classic lit, and the longest audiobook offered by the bookstore I rented it from. I thought I was pretty badass until Aaron Loeb told the story of the guy in a Somali prison who “read” Anna Karenina, all 349,168 words of it, to his fellow prisoners in a Morse-code-like system of knocks on the wall of his cell. It took something like seven years for the novel to make its way down the line to the rest of the inmates.

I loved all 65 minutes of Sam Green’s live documentary, The Measure of All Things, especially when Bao Xishun, the world’s second tallest man, saved a choking dolphin and, in the process, found love.

Bao Xishun Saves Dolphin

Caroline Paul told an incredible story about her attempt, as a teenager, to break the distance record for crawling on all fours…. Oh, forget it. I’m not even going to talk about it; you kinda had to be there.

(Disclosure: In addition to being a Pop-Up Magazine fanboy, I work for its publisher, California Sunday. My role in Thursday night, though, was basically sitting around admiring the hard work of Pat Walters, Leo Jung, Lauren Smith, Derek Fagerstrom, Evan Ratliff, Doug McGray, and the enormously talented storytellers they brought to the stage. Special thanks to our wonderful sponsors, MailChimp and Lexus.)

Save Our Saucepans

SOS Print Ad 1938 Ladies Home Journal

Last night at Pop-Up Magazine I was chatting with two people, one from Clorox and one from a Clorox steel wool supplier, who gave me a quiz I failed: What does SOS stand for in SOS pads? Turns out it’s Save Our Saucepans. Whatever those letters stand for, there’s nothing that polishes your aluminum pans “like new and like magic” like SOS. At least if you believe (as I do) this 1938 ad from Ladies Home Journal.

The Valley of Ambiguity

The Valley of Ambiguity

From Annalee Newitz’s (excellent) theory on viral journalism and the valley of ambiguity. Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction.

TED videos, often seasoned with cheery platitudes, become viral for the same reason that grumpy cat pictures do. They don’t ask us to think critically — just to enjoy, or be amused and enlightened without the time-consuming labor of skepticism and doubt clouding our clicks. Why do we want to share these stories? Because in some sense they are not open to interpretation. You don’t have to worry whether your friends will wonder why you shared this — it’s obvious.

The same goes for viral journalism on the other side of my chart. These stories, like explainers, how-to guides, Mythbusters-style debunkery, and truth-telling investigative journalism, are in some ways the opposite of a stupid video or a LOLcat. They are about truth, rather than amusement. But in fact, they go viral for exactly the same reason LOLcats do. They are not open to interpretation.

I guess we can all publish more feel-guide self-help guides, or just pretend that our low tweet counts (ahem) are a sign that we have asked our readers to do some critical thinking — and, by extension, we’re brilliant.

Prescient Print Ads from the 70s #tbt

The spirit of #tbt got me flipping through old print ads from the 1970s, and among them I noticed a few that feature an unexpected element of soothsay-ery.

For example, it’s like the copywriters at American Airlines in 1976 wrote a joke about the company’s commitment to customer service whose punchline would be delivered three decades later: “The less time passengers spend with me,” says the employee featured in the ad, “the better.”

American Airlines Print Ads 1970s

In Apple’s case (in this ad from 1979), it’s as if they knew they’d roll out Apple TV one day and “turn any color TV into a dazzling array of color graphics.”

Apple Print Ad 1979

Word Association Ads at Starbucks

Is this new, or have Starbucks and Google been running these silly-question ads for a while? I just logged on to the free wifi at a Starbucks location in San Francisco, and it served up a quick word-association quiz. When I say salsa, do you say dancers or tacos? After I picked tacos, I was served a taco-oriented video ad (provided by Google) for my viewing pleasure.

Word Association Ad at Starbucks

I wonder how this format is working. I participated in Part I (I answered the quiz question), but skipped Part II (watching the video ad). Anyone have experience with this kind of campaign? Are people other than me tuning in to the ads?

Being Authentic In Your Fakeness, Part II

Authentic Food Court Flavor

In response to that Fozzie and Kermit video, and my comment that an admission of fakeness can increase one’s authenticity, Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz alerted me to Bourbon Chicken Grill’N Dip, which promotes its “Authentic Food Court Flavoring.” Yum.

His source: James Gilmore and Joe Pine, authors of The Experience Economy and Authenticity.

Liking a Brand Enough That You’ll Never Sue Them

Cheerios Necklace
(Photo from My Natural Family.)

Early Wednesday morning, sitting above my cereal bowl — full of oats most likely toasted by General Mills — I read that clicking the Like button on the Facebook page of my favorite brands might abdicate my right to sue the company if it later does something that causes me harm. From the New York Times:

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

In fact, consumers may not even need to hit the Like button to give up their right to sue:

In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

This is hard for me to get my head around. Obviously a brand doesn’t make a move like that with the intention of delighting its customers. (It’s Friday, almost three days after the news broke, and it continues to dominate the conversation — none of it positive — on Twitter for #Cheerios.)

#Cheerios in Twitter

So why do it?

General Mills seems to have a gigantic number of happy customers who spent almost $18 billion on General Mills cereals and baking mixes last year, up seven percent from the year before. Do a lot of them end up suing the company in the end? I’m guessing they don’t. A chipped tooth here, or the occasional turd in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, right? It’s not like they’re selling toxic, smokable chemicals or fire arms.

Which put a weird thought in my head. I froze mid bite, staring down a spoonful of milky breakfast flakes, and wondered: Do the lawyers at General Mills know something I don’t? Some secret poisonous ingredient we don’t know about yet?!

I mean why else would they go after their very best customers — the one who are befriending them in Facebook, and trumpeting their brands across social media? Baffling. Maybe the CMO was out sick the day they updated the privacy policy.

Being Authentic In Your Fakeness

“Well Fozzie, the thing of it is though you’re not a real bear. You’re not a real natural bear. I mean, you’re talking about a bear in its natural habitat…. What do you have, you have sort of a fake fur. You’ve got foam rubber. You’ve got foam rubber and fake fur. You’re an artificial bear. Have you ever seen a bear with a magenta nose?”

It’s funny: As I watched Kermit and Fozzie call each other out for being fake, I found them to be more real than ever. Sure, they’re fake animals, but we already knew that. Meanwhile, they are so authentic as — what, brands? — that a lot of people consider them friends.

From a camera test for original The Muppet Movie back in 1979. Full story at Laughing Squid.

Low Likelihood That Disengaged Readers Will Return To Your Site

Shocking but true!! New data from Chartbeat shows a pretty tight correlation between reader engagement (measured in minutes spent visiting a website) and propensity to return to that site within a week.

Time Spent v Likelihood to Return

From Herbert Lui’s post at Contently:

Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile believes in measuring the time readers spend on the page engaging — scrolling, clicking, writing, reading, and watching — and correlating that number with the average reader’s propensity to return. This method helps determine the progress of publishers’ platform development based on the likelihood of readers to return in 30 days.

Don’t build traffic, says Lui, build an audience. Amen. I recently made a similar argument, that media doesn’t work if no one is paying attention.