Just as publishers and digital media businesses are held increasingly accountable for their content’s truth, to the advertising industry they’re held increasingly accountable for the “brand safety” of the inventory they sell. Truth and moral integrity seems suddenly somehow more important than before, but toxicity in media has actually been building for as long as the worldwide web has existed.
It’s over the last year that we’ve seen a sudden, heightened concern with the truth of the media. Before then, it was accepted as a fact of life: editors emphasise the sensational and salacious, and every newspaper resonates with its political and commercial agendas. These were among the facts of life. Being able to accept it, understand these facts and navigate them, made a person canny, and wise.
But now – it seems quite suddenly – politicians, in particular, are calling out the lies: it’s FAKE NEWS, designed to deceive and distract from the truth (which is whatever a person is saying, when they’re not busy crying, FAKE NEWS).
It’s easy to forget that the phenomenon originates in the digital advertising industry. Sensational stories attract attention, which is an online publisher’s product (mostly). The more attention your stories attract the more money you make. The frustration with monetising sensational stories though is that the really juicy ones are in limited supply. They’re covered by everyone else too, including the most recognised and trusted brands and websites in publishing – and readers direct their attention to the most credible sources. For an entrepreneurial but unrecognised publisher, instead of investing in real journalism, there has long been more money to be made – thanks, I’m afraid, to digital advertising – in making stuff up.
Trump’s campaign for the White House, culminating in the US presidential election, nearly a year ago now, brought a new development. Wholly false stories were seen written for a different purpose: to attempt to influence the outcome of the democratic process. A former FBI special agent testified to the Russian Government’s use of false news stories although Stanford research went on to question the significance of these efforts.
Ironically enough, as it was all going on, it was Donald Trump’s campaign that challenged – directly and overtly – the integrity of the press: “fake news” was born into mainstream conversation. Even now, only last week, the UK’s own Theresa May took a leaf from Trump’s book when she defended against claims of a policy U-turn, with an attack on the “Fake claims” of the British political press. Against belligerent analysis or an aggressive opinion, FAKE is a word of first defence.
Originally though, Fake News isn’t very much to do with CNN or the BBC; it’s about the toxicity that’s accumulated in digital media with the evolution of the digital advertising industry. The fundamentally unchecked scale of a tech-driven economy has made for Silicon Valley corporate success stories, it gives me a job, and Croud a business, and it will continue to make new billionaires all over the world. There’s so much about our industry that’s hugely positive, of course, and we are thankful. But the industry has bred toxic content too, and that toxic content has made for toxic ad inventory. Fake news means FAKE MEDIA.
Which is exactly what we saw in Google’s “bad week” in March (with Murdoch companies fanning a brief wildfire) as the world’s biggest advertisers paused their spending on YouTube and the Google Display Network.
For a long time, digital advertising has been personal: supporting practically personalised messaging. In the industry, we routinely place ads against an audience alone, i.e. on no specific ad inventory, at all. It’s win-win-win: advertisers reach exactly the customers they want; while junk publishers, terrorists and advertising companies alike all make money.
There are moral and ethical issues relating to terrorism – ! – but there are commercial issues too: CSR records get challenged, brands get damaged. It just doesn’t look good to be seen to be funding and profiting from murder and hatred, or to have your brand promoted next to a page of lies and deception.
The obvious and very good solution is brand safety procedure, and technology, employed both by publishers, and also by advertisers and their agencies. We’ve seen renewed commitments and action from Google about the removal of problematic content from search results as well as their available ad inventory. In May, Facebook’s hire of 3,000 new content moderators can be taken as a sign of their acceptance of their role as a publisher (in all – according to Stephen Fry’s protestations – but name) although with the leaking of “more than 100 internal training manuals, spreadsheets and flowcharts” the complexity and challenge of content moderation is laid bare for all to see.
The challenge is quite rightly taken on from the opposite, advertiser side too: to give Croud as an example, we use two layers of brand safety tech: the facilities in Google’s advertiser side (“DSP”) DoubleClick platform, combined with the features of the independent DoubleVerify platform.
A more difficult, further away, but arguably better solution could be a backtrack for advertising, closer to its roots. Building on Doc Searls’ idea for a minute: there was a time when an ad meant something to the consumer because of the inventory where it was seen, when one objective of your Super Bowl TV ad was to be ostentatious, when your boss expected you to waste half your budget and not know which half, and when you paid your agency guys to smoke and drink whisky in the office. If we take a moment to remember what ads meant to everyone back then, we might start to think it makes sense to treat audiences only as an optimisation, and not as a placement.
It might make it harder to scale a campaign, but part of the solution is to make up for that scale with new approaches. Feeling so sure that the Audience is key to advertising success is right, but it should drive us to discover new and better ways to connect with customers (prospective and existing). Movement at Google and Facebook away from cookies, and towards login-based ad tech means we should expect better support for clearer connections to specific individuals. The safest and clearest way to communicate is directly, and it begs the question: what can we build for customers to attract their deliberate, intended connection to our brands and businesses, with trust, and through which they invite us to advertise to them?