George Orwell said “People will believe whatever the media tells them to believe.” Well, I believe we’re at war. I’m not too sure who we’re at war with but that’s what I’ve been led to believe. The media has, and always will be, a very powerful influencer. The same is true of advertising. In fact, it’s difficult to find the difference between the media and advertising. The same publications, TV stations, web sites, and social media feeds that tell you what to believe about wars with Muslim terrorists or Russian hackers, are the same publications, TV stations, web sites, and social media feeds used by advertisers to tell you what to believe about clothing, food, sex and everything else imaginable. The media and advertising are conjoined twins, and their name is Propaganda.
If you look back to the Second World War you’ll see some terrifying propaganda taking place. On both the Allied and Axis fronts, propaganda drove men to war, called woman to service and sent Jews to death camps. During the Second World War, propaganda and advertising were not as conjoined as they are today. The truth is, you can’t advertise much when you’re getting the crap bombed out of you 24 hours a day. And if your war machine is only focused on bombing the crap out of people 24 hours a day, then logically there’s nothing of consequence to advertise. As an example, during WW2 the General Tire Company placed advertisements encouraging people not to buy tyres for the sake of rationing rubber. Seems smart.
In 2017, we don’t have a supply issue. Unless you’re a Syrian, you’ve never had it better. Everything you’ll ever want is available and everything you’ll ever need has already been invented. Instead of being told by propaganda to fight “the Japs” like they did back in 1942, you’re being told by propaganda to consume products like a vampire, unconcerned that they may never be replenished.
The newest advertising tool pushing this mass broadcast to consume everything is called programmatic advertising. In case you don’t know, programmatic advertising enables media agencies to track potential customers around the web and serve them adverts on whichever website they are browsing. Within milliseconds of loading a webpage, a system using complex computer algorithms will serve up an ad that’s theoretically perfect for you, based on your online profile. Unfortunately, the click-through rates for programmatic advertising are always dire, averaging in the low 1 percent area. But that’s not the point. Advertisers are in it for the millions and millions and millions of impressions that programmatic advertising can buy.
I have mixed feelings about programmatic advertising. I don’t like seeing it and as an advertiser I only use it under duress. There are a few reasons for this, but the most important one to me is that we’re at war, fighting Muslim terrorists and North Koreans dictators. If you’re not sure what this has got to do with advertising, please consider this example:
I have a client who was told by their media buying company that programmatic advertising is a great way to build brand awareness because of the huge number of impressions they’ll get. My client’s core business revolves around trucks. Renting, leasing, selling, and the driving of trucks. These days, terrorists use trucks as weapons of war. Since I’m a cynic, I believe that it’s highly likely that when the next truck massacre occurs and it’s broadcast on the web, programmatic advertising will present my client’s advertisements before a news report for such an incident. Imagine the headline: “Twelve killed by truck in terrorist attack! Click to view the full story”. But first watch this ad about a company that rents trucks. That’s grossly inappropriate, bad association and terrible brand strategy. Cynicism aside, how could this happen? Let’s consider the programmatic advertising system and its aforementioned complex computer technology. Actually, it’s not so complex. It doesn’t know the difference between key-words. It knows that if your search history involves a lot of trucks then it needs to play my client’s truck focused advert for you. The system doesn’t care about content and how it relates to my client’s business. And with billions of impressions happening every day it’s very probable that my client’s ad will show under circumstances like this.
It happens more often than you think. Thanks to programmatic advertising hundreds of large companies, including Verizon, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, and Nissan have had their advertising appearing on hate sites and YouTube videos created by supporters of terrorist groups such as Islamic State. Adverts for Disney were embedded in sunnah-online.com, a website which hosts lectures by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, a preacher who has argued that a husband cannot be charged with rape. Hoorah for Disney. So sorry for rape victims.
Programmatic advertising is a big concern for me and it should be for the entire advertising industry and everyone who uses them. There is a huge risk of ads appearing in violent, pornographic, extremist and other unsafe brand environments simply because of the volume and speed at which programmatic advertising is carried out. Programmatic advertising isn’t being used because it delivers better results for clients. Far from it. It’s used almost exclusively to make media and advertising agencies lots of money.
In closing, I’d like to compare programmatic advertising to a bomb. Some people like them, most don’t. Some will tell you that using a bomb is necessary to protect freedom and liberty. Some will say they’re compelled to use bombs to fight injustice and intolerance. But, like most weapons of war, the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong is only a matter of perspective. I hope that your perspective on programmatic advertising becomes a lot more like mine.