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How Programmatic Advertising Can Lead to “Inappropriate” Ad Placement: The Allstate/Breitbart Problem

March 29, 2017 – Mollie Panzner

How Do Ads End Up On the “Wrong” Pages?

Last week, Google hit news headlines when it announced that several big name advertisers including Walmart, Volkswagen, AT&T and Verizon, were suspending their marketing campaigns on Google’s YouTube site after discovering that their advertisements were appearing next to offensive material. This was the result of an investigation by The Times of London, which studied the frequency of advertisements by major brands appearing alongside videos promoting extremist content. Most recently, the ride-sharing service Lyft joined in removing their ad spots with YouTube due to their appearance next to videos published by a racist skinhead group.

With 100% of the top 100 global brands running YouTube ads in the past year, and 60% of US digital video ad spending expected to be transacted through programmatic channels this year, it seems like this is a challenge that won’t be going away.

At Evidon, our business lifts the opaque blanket that envelops the digital marketing supply chain, allowing clients visibility into how unauthorized and unknown vendors access their site’s audience (often through tag piggybacking or legacy implementations). Much of the work we do for clients ensures digital discipline through vendor accountability and visibility into piggybacking or tag redirects; however, this still leaves a large portion of the online ecosystem looking like the wild west, as once your audience data leaves your site (even through a trusted partner), it can still end up in the wrong hands.

How Do Ads End Up On the “Wrong” Pages?

In order to illustrate how this happens, I’m revisiting an article from November of last year, which discusses the appearance of advertisements on the right-wing news organization Breitbart.com. Several large brands, such as Kellogg and Allstate, were troubled to discover that their ads were appearing on sites that they believed were in misalignment with company values; one of those sites was Breitbart.com. This led many who are unfamiliar with the online ecosystem to question how this happens. In order to answer this, I’ve created a graphic to illustrate how an advertisement ends up on a publisher’s site, programmatically, without the advertising brand’s knowledge.

Here’s an outline of the steps involved in a programmatic ad placement:

  • A user comes to an advertiser’s website, in this case Allstate, and navigates away before making a purchase.
  • Allstate’s data management platform (DMP) collects data about this user (and others), then warehouses and processes it, in order to inform future Allstate online advertising decisions.
  • Allstate’s DMP works with demand side platforms (DSPs) who bid on behalf of Allstate for ad slots, to populate with Allstate advertisements, specifically seeking out websites where potential Allstate customers might be.
  • Similar to a stock exchange, buyers (DSPs) and sellers (SSPs) ”meet” at a real-time auction to negotiate the sale of ad slots for ad inventory. Because of the real-time nature of programmatic, the aggregation of ad bids and offers, and the introduction of additional data sources (data suppliers), there is minimal transparency into who is buying and selling what.
  • As DSPs work on behalf of ecommerce sites, for example, supply side platforms (SSPs) work with publisher sites seeking to sell ad space on their site by bundling, or aggregating, available ad slots on collections of websites. For example, there might be a bid to show advertisements on an offering of “political news sites frequented by conservative readers”. In this example, the offerer that “won” the bid (on behalf of Allstate) has available ad slots, with some of those slots on Breitbart.com.
  • The SSP that wins the deal on the ad exchange distributes the advertisements to the websites that it works with. During this distribution, the publisher’s ad server receives the ad creative to serve in its ad slot.
  • By working with the specified SSP, Breitbart’s ad server receives and serves the Allstate advertisement on their website

For reference, here’s a graphic of the above programmatic ad placement:

 

Monitoring Vendors for Greater Accountability

I’ve observed that one of the most frustrating parts for businesses that leverage programmatic buying and selling is the lack of transparency, and corresponding lack of accountability, associated with vendors participating in the ad auction. This is an incredibly complex problem to unravel.

While Evidon empowers businesses with transparency into their own use of technologies, and their corresponding implications for the user experience and data security, there’s still minimal transparency into where data, or ads, might end up after a user leaves a website.  With tools like Trackermap businesses can manage their own site’s online partners, but understandably the next question is how the business can properly oversee the transfer of their audience data, and the placement of their ads, on other sites.

With the issues identified in the Breitbart example, and with YouTube’s most recent programmatic challenges, my hope is that the industry will spend more of their efforts on fixing the problem.  

If you’d like to better understand your own site’s digital supply chain, feel free to email us, or myself (mollie at evidon dot com) to start a conversation. You can also follow me on Twitter @MolliePanzner, and if you’d like to learn more about Evidon, you can visit us at Evidon.com and follow us on Twitter at @Evidon.

Mollie is the Senior Director of Product Strategy at Evidon, and a subject matter expert on digital governance and vendor analysis.