How much of your company’s ad budget funds disinformation? You might believe the answer to be “none.” After all, most reputable brands don’t actively seek to run ads alongside conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and troll farms. Unfortunately, that’s no guarantee. If you’re not routinely auditing your programmatic ad buys or partnering directly with the websites you want to run ads on, it’s highly likely that — by default — your brand is directly contributing to the disinformation economy.
The global digital advertising industry is estimated to be $600 billion and growing. While Facebook and other social media sites are popular for advertising, much of the campaign spend dedicated to the internet is distributed across the “open web” — the millions of websites and apps available to us through a quick Google search. With little oversight and moderation from the adtech companies that monetize them, this landscape is far murkier for advertisers.
This is the result of trade-offs that marketers have made over the past decade while pursuing the promise of programmatic advertising: more scale, more reach, and lower costs. As advertisers handed off day-to-day operations to a bewilderingly complex digital advertising supply chain, those middlemen have become gatekeepers of their clients’ information — and often deny access to key data they need to audit their campaigns. This represents an acute reputational risk at a time when consumers are increasingly making buying decisions based on personal values and brand associations.
Advertisers need to take back control over their own advertising. They need to demand access to their own granular data from third-party ad exchanges, audit their ad campaigns, and clarify for themselves where on the internet they really want to be. If they don’t, they will continue to put themselves at brand risk. Even more seriously, they will continue to send money to the people who financially benefit the most from publishing disinformation on the internet.
How Adtech Funds the Global Disinformation Crisis
This lack of oversight and accountability has left advertisers in the dark around their own ad campaigns. It has also opened up a thriving industry for disinformation operatives and fraudsters. The World Federation of Advertisers says they expect digital advertising to be “second only to the drugs trade as a source of income for organized crime” by 2025.
Digital advertising not only allows bad actors to generate profits, it also provides them with an invaluable set of tools to manipulate public opinion. At the Check My Ads Institute, the watchdog organization I co-founded, we see this as a triple threat: Propaganda thrives on money, ads, and data. Ad revenue helps propagandists multiply their efforts across networks of content across the web. Data enables propagandists to develop detailed user profiles that help them target people who are susceptible to lies and bigotry. Finally, the ads themselves — particularly those from blue-chip advertisers — lend signals of legitimacy to visitors to disinformation websites.
This business model is sustainable only because it’s built on the backs of unwitting advertisers. The fallout of these unexpected ad placements ends up on the brand, whose communications teams are often forced to address an ad placement they neither approved nor were aware of.
In 2021, Warby Parker learned that it was sponsoring Daily Wire, an outlet whose hosts openly promote harassment and bullying toward transgender people, and even floated the idea of their “eradication.” Warby Parker pulled their ads within hours, confirming that they were “working to actively stop these types of ads from being placed. We do not condone this.”
In August 2022, Check My Ads found ads for household brands appearing during commercial breaks for War Room, the livestream show hosted by Steve Bannon. Bannon, whose on-air monologues included calls for the beheading of Dr. Fauci, was sponsored by advertisers including Procter & Gamble, Nissan, and Audi.
The Slow-Burning Chaos of the Digital Ad Industry
Most ads on the web are placed through programmatic advertising. In other words, they are placed algorithmically, through billions of lightning-fast auctions with dozens of factors, with little to no human oversight.
In theory, this process is hyper-efficient and allows advertisers to allocate their budgets and monitor the results of campaigns in real time. In reality, there are so many layers of companies that insert themselves into the supply chain that monitoring digital ad campaigns is more difficult than anyone outside the industry would expect.
A typical ad placement will involve:
- A demand-side platform (DSP) that brings advertisers to market
- Supply-side platforms (SSPs), a type of middleman that brings publishers to market
- Ad networks, brokers in the middle of the supply chain
- Data management platforms (DMPs), platforms used to collect and manage data about an advertiser’s audience
Unsurprisingly, the reality of too many opaque business relationships has led to disinformation outlets being pulled into the system. Self-serve application processes, coupled with the tendency of these middleman companies to turn a blind eye, has made it too easy for website owners to connect to the advertising system without any human review or even an after-the-fact audit.
To counter this problem, industry associations like GARM, the Global Alliance of Responsible Media — which include GroupM, Havas, and Procter & Gamble — have tried to stem the flow of money to what they call “brand unsafe” outlets by developing tighter definitions for its members to ratify. GARM’s brand safety framework prohibits advertising on “insensitive, irresponsible, and harmful treatment of sensitive social issues that demean a particular group or incite greater conflict.” A new layer of technology companies, distinct from those described above — known as ad verification and brand safety solutions — has emerged with promises to protect brands from this type of content.
Still, companies are often stuck in a game of whack-a-mole. Consider the fact that, years after every major advertiser dropped the fringe, right-wing news site Breitbart, advertisers still find themselves funding Bannon, its one-time editor in chief, all over again. But the current system makes it hard for brands to protect themselves.
Currently, advertisers have to rely on adtech companies to find out where their ads are being placed. But right now it is common practice for these companies and agencies to make it difficult for advertisers to access granular reports of ad placements that would allow them to audit the effectiveness of vendor technology and see who they’re giving money to. This happens for large and small advertisers alike. For example, leading brand safety technology companies tend to provide high-level performance reports by category. A Fortune 500 company tells us that they refused to provide granular details such as which URLs were blocked — unless they significantly increased spend.
This opacity can hide both bad actors and poor performance. For example, one ad re-targeting company typically provides high-level performance reports to its clients. When a client, Headphones.com, asked for detailed information about where their ads were placed, the company developed a custom dashboard and sent it to them. The client found dozens of disinformation outlets and thousands of inappropriate websites and apps, and blocked their ads from appearing on them. In doing so, the client decreased their ad spend from $1,200/day to $50/day. Their campaign performance stayed the exact same.
These are not isolated incidents, but a pattern. Adtech companies work in the dark and effectively keep advertisers locked out of these transactions. The lack of control and oversight has led to consequences that overwhelmingly harm advertisers and society at large.
So what can advertisers do?
How Advertisers Can Take Control of Their Data
As digital advertising budgets once again expand dramatically for the 2024 U.S. election season, the stakes are high. Advertisers must be able to check where their ads are appearing. To do this, they need to actively seek control of ad placement data from their vendors.
There are a few simple, impactful steps companies can take:
Check your ad campaigns.
Forget high-level performance reports from ad tech companies. Instead, ask them for log-level data, which is the real source of truth of your ad placements, because it includes specific data about on which websites where your ad appeared. Supply chain research firms can help you audit your campaigns.
Avoid brand safety technology.
The leading ad verification companies only provide high-level reports, keeping you unaware of which websites your ads are being placed on and blocked from. As we mention above, this isn’t sufficient for ensuring that your company’s ads aren’t supporting bad actors. If you are using brand safety technology, ensure that that data, too, gets audited regularly — brand safety technology is often ineffective, and sometimes even harmful.
Demand cash refunds.
There will often be a discrepancy between your log-level data and the campaign standards you were promised. When this happens, demand a cash refund — not a make-good. You are entitled to your money back and an explanation of how the discrepancies will be avoided in the future. If not, ditch the vendor.
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Marketing is not just about reach and click-throughs. It is about who we associate with, and how we show up in the world. As marketers we spend a lot of money to promote our brands, and that gives us a lot of power — and it’s now time to use it. Demand control of your own ad campaigns to advertise better. It will not only improve your brand, it might just save democracy.