Digital Paid Media Is A Fraud

A few weeks ago we reported that Apple added blocking ability to all devices before its creator pulled it out of a sense of guilt for removing income from the publishers.

That's like feeling bad because you put an end to Albanian pyramid schemes.

Lest you think I'm using hyperbole here, let me please direct your attention to a recent article in Bloomberg on the subject of click fraud. In 2013, Heineken USA held a company conference in which they gave a presentation on the performance of their ads that shocked the room. "Only 20 percent of the campaign’s “ad impressions”—ads that appear on a computer or smartphone screen—were even seen by actual people."

With ad blocker usage increasingly on the rise (and make no mistake, pulling it from Apple's App store, won't stop the usage) this should come as no surprise. What should come as a surprise to anyone who hasn't thought about it however, is the way in which impressions are generated.

Again from Bloomberg:

Increasingly, digital ad viewers aren’t human. A study done last year in conjunction with the Association of National Advertisers embedded billions of digital ads with code designed to determine who or what was seeing them. Eleven percent of display ads and almost a quarter of video ads were “viewed” by software, not people.

Before you shrug, also consider the same companies creating fake views with botnets are also putting malware on banners. Malware that that infects your computers. And turns them into click-driving machines.

Think of it this way: Digital Paid Media, i.e. banner ads, are garbage advertising. As bad as the direct junk mail you get in your real mailbox, but with one significant difference. When you open your mailbox and see a credit card offer or envelope stuffed with coupons you don't use, you take them out of the mailbox and throw them straight in the trash without looking. When it comes to Digital Paid Media, Big Data companies not only figured out a way to count your non-view as a view, they make billions off of it. It has become a happy cottage industry selling small medium and large priced ads per click or view. The traffic brokers selling pop-up ads we scramble to close before they take over our browser, or bot views who only need to "view," your million dollar ad for two seconds for it to count as an actual view, are, unsurprisingly, the cheapest. And it is cheapest because the views are by and large not human. Organic content discovery is medium priced and then search ads cost the most. In other words, you spend the most money for real eyeballs by going directly to the publisher. But for bot eyeballs, from a third-party, you have a greater number of impressions.

And stranger still this phenomenon is being completely ignored by advertising agencies and their brand partners-- if they even know it's happening. Or worse-- it's being endorsed.

At my previous agency we had a digital paid media guru whose job it was to place all those shitty banner ads. I asked for an exhaustive list to see where they were being placed and he looked at me like I asked to make out with his mother. Perhaps he didn't want me to know that one of our clients was serving up ads on piracy sites along with Amex. In this case, I have a strong suspicion our client had no idea that there were two DPM lists: the ones they were allowed to see, and the ones they didn't know existed, but whose views were still counted in case studies.

On the flip side, however, are the clients who absolutely know how the sausage is made and don't care. Now you might ask, why on earth would they want to waste so much money in placing ads that are seen by bots, and have a very little true ROI? I know I asked myself that question. And then the answer occurred to me during a client meeting. I was told I had to put two call to actions on a robust branded experience contained within a music streaming app. I pushed back. Human behavior would suggest if you are listening to a playlist on your mobile device you are most likely not staring at the screen. More importantly, why would you create a robust branded experience for someone only to give them the option to leave the experience through a CTA and not return? When the client insisted, stating how well the CTA performs, I realized it was their job to ensure this bullshit circle of life keeps spinning. There's also another reason, too: ego. The hot shit CEO wants to be able to brag his ad was the most seen ad in its category ever because it sounds like a good accolade in a Forbes article. Who cares if the ad wasn't seen by real humans?

I must give credit to Big Data for selling the hell out of this con job with buzzwords and labyrinthian diagrams that can always be skewed toward the positive. And like any good pyramid scheme, they even have the suckers becoming evangelists of the bullshit. For instance, I've heard a client outright acknowledge they buy youtube views and impressions the first week they roll out a new campaign because "it will cause real views through momentum later." Yeah. Because fake success of your ad will cause me to turn off adblocker, just so I can see it.

Thankfully not everyone is that unethical. While some are counting fake views, and posting on sites that profit in human trafficking, WPP's GroupM announced last week that it is requiring all of its media partners to receive anti-piracy certification from the Trustworthy Accountability Group.

As Mark Zaneis, CEO of TAG said "What we see as an industry is that there's not much differentiation between the fraudulent activity and things like proliferation of malware and the stealing of content through piracy sites. These are all links in a chain of criminal activity that is victimizing the digital advertising supply chain. It's perpetrated by the same entities."

One does have to wonder how much longer will it go unabated in The States before the government steps in and regulate the Digital Al Capones out there. Some argue it's too big to regulate properly at this point. And by by "some," I mean the people who are skirting the law. But with Europe's continued pressure to start regulating the monopoly machine known as Google, hopefully a ripple effect will occur. And it's about time, too.

Related posts:
Google kills flash in Chrome - effectively kills the future of flash banner ads
Marissa Mayer believes that better ads will stop people from ad blocking - she's wrong
Techdirt "adapts" by allowing users to turn off ads.

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