Monday, August 24, 2015

The drama in programmatic online advertising

“Via @LeHuffPost Quand actu et pub se mêlent de manière hasardeuse... #Germanwings”
In times of adversity, online advertising routines fail. Drastically

The above example of an inappropriate display ad is just one in a range of similar advertising anomalies following the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 in March 2015. In the hours and days after such events, newspapers witness an increased online traffic to their websites and reports about the disasters in particular. Unfortunately, such reports are often accompanied by inappropriate advertising. Similarly, users of social media often encounter those ads at those times. Conversations on social media about such inappropriate ads often blame either the websites (i.e., news outlets) or the advertisers. But whose fault is it anyway? How should we understand this? And most important, how should different stakeholders within the online advertising business prepare themselves to avoid such mistakes in the future?

Online advertising increasingly operates within an automated mindset with a whole set of stakeholders being involved in a routinized set of interactions that result in the consumer seeing display advertisements next to his or her online content. This whole set of interactions is often referred to as programmatic (buying of) advertising or real-time bidding (see @iab's instructive video). Although the exact meaning and scope of this label still differs to some extent, the cornerstone of this approach is that advertisers engage in online bids not to specific ad places but rather to specific advertising relevancies. Indeed, advertisers bid for having their online advertisements placed in a context that they seem to find most appropriate. This relevancy is derived from markers both based on knowledge about the consumer (i.e., targeting) and content. Hence, when reading about a certain topic on a newspaper’s websites, the odds increase for a reader to encounter an advertisement that also relates to that topic.

This implies that internet content, such as on news websites, about travel or airliners will have a higher probability to also show adjacent display advertisements on this topic. That is exactly what also happened in the wake of the recent Germanwings tragedy. In the days after the tragic crash there were first reports about that crash and afterwards there were reports about the responsibility of the co-pilot making it an intentional crash. A Twitter search revealed a variety of messages about inappropriate advertisementswhere airliners, insurance companies, aviation games or lotteries advertised. Here is an overview:

Type of Brands
Qatar, Emirates, SN Brussels Airlines, Air France, Vueling, Germanwings
Other travel, Thalys (High-speed train), Airbus
Volkswagen (“Time for German Engineering”)
Flight simulator game
Netflix’ Bloodline, Planes: Fire & Rescue (Disney movie), Unbroken (Blu-Ray movie)
Dela (life insurance); “Rest In Peace”
Lucky Day (lottery)
Newspaper websites
Huffington Post, Het Laatste Nieuws, Algemeen Dagblad, De Standaard, USA Today, Le Monde, …
News websites
CNN,,, Europe1

USA, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, …

Some examples (for a more extensive set of examples, see this collection)

Embedded image permalink “Vaya tela, ya sin filtros. Día de hoy, anuncio en @LaVanguardia junto a una tragedia aérea. WTF?  #GERMANWINGS” Embedded image permalink MashableFrom an advertising point of view, this is problematic for two reasons. The first is that congruency between the content and the adjacent advertisement typically increases the attention and processing of the advertisement. Without a doubt, the above examples are very congruent and thus it is quite reasonable that people will be more inclined to pay attention. The incongruence with regard to the tone of voice – these are just regular advertisements fitting a campaign and not adapted to the disaster – will then further increase attention to the brand. Many readers might understand to some extent that this is not a purposeful ad placement and for them the effects might be modest with regard to negative evaluations of advertiser. For most, however, such attention to the inappropriate ad will result in some kind of negative evaluation.

The second problematic consequence of these inappropriate ads surpasses the mere marketing level and touches upon deeper issues of respect and human well-being. Many readers of disaster news might feel strong emotions of despair, empathy, etc. Having an advertisement that they feel to be inappropriate next to such news simply is not the right to do. 

Currently, there are only two solutions to solve the issues with these problematic advertisements. Both are very drastic and only affect two stakeholders within this strongly distributed chain of stakeholders involved in programmatic advertisement buying. First, the news websites themselves can temporarily move their crisis news to ad-free webpages. Some websites did so for the Germanwings tragedy, probably inspired by a number of user complaints. For instance, Belgian newspaper De Standaard did so. This is a drastic action given that news websites generate a lot of traffic with these crisis reports, meaning that withdrawing advertisements from these pages results in a serious cutback on advertising revenue. Indeed, advertisements that might be less congruent but therefore also more appropriate could still generate revenue without offending your readers.

Second, advertisers can put their online campaign on hold. Again, this is a very drastic action given that one also stops online advertising for other places where the advertisement is not deemed inappropriate. Again, some companies responded as such following the Germanwings crash. For instance, the Belgian life insurance provider Dela stopped its campaign after some complaints. They realized that their campaign would mostly be displayed next to this disaster news and therefore decided to withdraw the campaign for some days.

Are there other solutions to this problem? One would of course be to change the programmatic buying routines such that operators could be used that prevent one’s ad to show up at certain places. I do believe, however, that other solutions are already possible. Many of the brands that are mentioned in the example are major global brands. These typically have online conversation managers taking care of customer interactions on social media. Many are even responsible for micro campaigns on social media using ad hoc created advertisements such as top topicals. I propose to make these managers also responsible to react to these crisis situations. One way to adapt to the Germanwings crash would have been to simply insert a small black ribbon on each ad expressing compassion with the victims and their significant others. We did not find one such adapted campaign. Only one company we know of did something similar: Germanwings itself changed the colors of its logo to grey

Embedded image permalink “Le bon placement pub d'Air France. #Germanwings” programmatic buying fails in times of a crisis Jack Epstein on Twitter: "An ad for Qatar Airlines at the end of the @chicagotribune article about the plane crash today in France - huh?"


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