Opinion

Forget the Google scandal, online advertising is ‘corrupt at its core’

Advertising and marketing folk are generally hard-working people with worthwhile motives, but we have been sleepwalking into a landscape of deviousness and deceit advanced by a tech culture which has embraced – let's not kid ourselves – an ethos of malleable ethics, argues Bob Hoffman

Let’s forget for a minute about the growing Google scandal.

Let’s forget the kickback scandal unearthed in the United States by the Association of National Advertisers.

Instead, let’s go back to first principles and focus on the nature of online advertising, and why – at its core – it has become a corrupt and dangerous thing.

It all started with a big fantasy. The fantasy was this – people would want to interact with online advertising.

We were told that online advertising would be far more effective than traditional advertising because it would be interactive. This fantasy lived for a few years until reliable data arrived and it became clear that consumers had virtually no interest in interacting with online advertising. In fact, click rates (the only possible way to interact with online advertising) were so low, platforms like Facebook refused to divulge them.

There are two ways online publishers make money – traffic and clicks. In light of the indifference consumers were demonstrating toward display advertising, publishers needed to find a way to generate traffic and/or clicks to attract advertisers and make money.

A crisis was averted when they hit on a solution: Disguise advertising as something else.

Illustration by Jacu Amansec

When you see a TV commercial, a billboard or a magazine ad, there is no question what it is. It is an attempt to sell you something. These ads may be annoying, stupid, or tiresome but there is no doubt about the nature of what they are or what their motives are. They are ads and they want to sell you something.

Online advertising is different. It has become devious, non-transparent, and unscrupulous. It is intentionally confusing and its motives are often unclear. It does everything possible to hide its real intent.

Yahoo is in the top five websites in the US by visitor count. Here is a a screen grab from this morning’s (as I write this) front page news feed.

Let’s ignore for a second the unspeakable crap that Yahoo considers front page news. One of the leading stories on this front page is not a news story at all. It is an ad disguised as a news story (it’s the Stephen Hawking ‘story’).

Yahoo also deceives us about the security of our personal information. According to Yahoo…

“…we have a deep understanding of the threats facing our users and continuously strive to stay ahead of these threats to keep our users and our platforms secure…”

But according to The New York Times, in 2014 Yahoo’s chief of security recommended some changes that would make their platform a lot more secure by employing “end-to-end” encryption.

This initiative was thwarted by the person who runs their email and messaging services because “...it would have hurt Yahoo’s ability to index and search message data…” That means simply this – they wouldn’t be able to read our email and target us with advertising accordingly.

The result? Last year Yahoo announced that half a billion accounts had been hacked.

Google earns its money by misdirection. When you search for ‘Gloves’ as I did here, you get an ad disguised as a search result.

Unless you happen to notice the word ‘sponsored’ in the upper right corner, and happen to know that by ‘sponsored’ Google actually means ‘this is an ad’ you would believe you’re getting a search result.

Google has made a minimal effort to identify ads (as is required by regulation) including a little yellow ‘ad’ badge on most paid ads. However, the overall look and feel of the ads is so similar to search results that half the people can’t distinguish between a paid ad and a legitimate search result. There is only one possible explanation for this – Google is intentionally blurring the lines.

This is not the only way Google strives to deceive. According to The Wall Street Journal, the US Federal Trade Commission has reported “… Google Inc. manipulated search results to favor its own services over rivals’, even when they weren’t most relevant for users…the FTC’s bureau of competition found evidence that Google boosted its own services for shopping, travel and local businesses by altering its ranking criteria and ‘scraping’ content from other sites. It also deliberately demoted rivals.”

The Wall Street Journal also recently reported that “ads for products sold by Google and its sister companies appeared in the most prominent spot in 91 per cent of 25,000 recent searches related to such items”.

The Journal says: “The results show how Google uses its dominant search engine to boost other parts of its business and give it an edge over competitors….After the Journal shared the analysis with Google on Dec. 15, many of the ads disappeared… Google declined to comment on the disparity.” I bet they did.

Facebook uses the names of its users to create phoney testimonial ads which falsely imply that your friends and family are endorsing the brands in question. This practice amounts to hijacking user identities and disguising them as product endorsements. The ad below appeared in my Facebook feed today.

I have contacted both Nathan Krinsky and Susan Tillem, the people referenced in the ad, and have confirmed that neither of them knew they were being used in this way. When Mr Krinsky was questioned about this his response was: “How did they get my name?” He said he had no awareness of their using his name, he did not give permission nor did he “like” the advertiser.

Actually, he did give permission but didn’t know it. The permission for them to engage in this deceptive practice is buried deep in the agreement he signed when he opened a Facebook account.

There is only one explanation for this – Facebook is intentionally exploiting a legal loophole to deceive us into thinking our friends are endorsing products which they are not endorsing.

Many of the ads in my current Facebook feed are identified as ‘suggested posts’. I wonder what language it is in which ‘suggested post’ means ‘ad’? As usual, they are doing their best to confuse what is an ad and what is not.

Social media is a gross abuser of reasonable advertising standards. The most dangerous outcome of this has been the perversion of the news industry.

First is fake news. The ability of fake news to make money for its creators is enabled by adtech (the automated buying and selling of advertising space).  In very simple terms, a fake news story runs on a social media platform, attracts traffic and clicks, which signals programmatic (automated) systems to buy advertising on the site. Below is an egregious example of a ‘successful’ fake news story.

A second corruption of journalism is the ascendancy of clickbait. Since online publishers only make money from clicks and traffic, the use of clickbait tactics to attract traffic has become more economically rewarding than good journalism.

In the current model, good journalism can actually have a negative economic effect. The valuable people you attract through good journalism are tracked and retargeted to at a lower cost site. Or your story is hijacked, aggregated and republished somewhere else. You’ll never believe what happens next.

Third is the development and acceptance of ‘native advertising’ as a legitimate form of journalistic activity. Despite its euphemistically lovely name, native advertising is nothing but advertising disguised as news.

Legitimate news organisations, desperate to make money at all costs, have been seduced into  producing and running thinly disguised advertising pieces masquerading as news. The rot has gotten so deep that some once-reputable news organisations have actually set up studios for the creation of this crap, and are going so far as to oversee its wide dissemination on social media channels on behalf of its clients.

It’s hard to overestimate the damage that online advertising has had on the credibility of our news media. The fact that we have a populace that no longer knows what to believe from a media industry they once trusted, is not an accident.

Advertising and marketing folk are generally good, hard-working people with worthwhile motives. We want to help our clients and we don’t want to damage people or society. But we have been sleepwalking on a slippery slope of deviousness and deceit that has been advanced by a tech culture which has embraced – let’s not kid ourselves – an ethos of malleable ethics.

There is decay, corruption and deceit now sitting at the heart of online advertising.

Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog, where this article first appeared

ADVERTISEMENT

Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.

 

SUBSCRIBE

Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing