The perils of programmatic

Programmatic is on the rise all around the world, and across many different media channels, with a recent Business Insider report saying programmatic transactions will make up 52 percent of non-search digital-ad spend growth in the US this year. Programmatic is growing at 20 percent a year, with real-time bidding growing even faster. And while most of the ad networks claim they have checks and balances in place to ensure no dodgy ads show up and harm publishers’ brands, or no ads show up on dodgy sites, there will always be a few that slip through the cracks. 

Recently, we spotted an ad on nzherald.co.nz advertising chineselady.com (there was also one for Thai ladies). And there has also been a sighting of the classic, flashing, garish ‘congratulations, you’re our 1 millionth visitor, claim your prize now’ on the homepage. NZME also embraces Outbrain, so there are a number of questionable promoted stories at the bottom of articles. And while news publishers are keen on getting any revenue they can in These Difficult Times, it is a balancing act between keeping the lights on and protecting a premium brand. 

A few years back, a member of the StopPress team may or may not have been watching an illegal stream and saw ASB ads popping up. Things have tightened up since then, and most ad networks have black lists of dodgy sites and white lists of approved sites, so advertisers can ensure their ads are being served on reputable sites (many publishers also offer brands assurances that if, for example, news of an airplane crash is being covered, the ads for airlines won’t show up). But ad fraud is big business and, while Google has its methods for excluding sites, much like the war on drugs, it’s probably an unwinnable battle.

As Acquire Online’s Zane Furtado told us: “While ad fraud definitely deserves our attention, it doesn’t necessarily have the potential to disrupt the market. Most demand-side platforms have in-built ad fraud protection. A way to prevent ad fraud is to buy active view impressions on above-the-fold placements or TRAQ scores. We use third party solutions like Integral ad science and Moat to track the activity on the ads served. We also manually maintain an extensive blacklist and monitor inventory sources for excessive impression frequency per users. No inventory source should have a greater frequency than Facebook’s FBX.” 

Of course, this scenario isn’t limited to digital. TVNZ apologised recently for running an ad for Skyn condoms in the midst of the Louise Nicholas story Consent and unfortunate ad placements across all media types make great fodder for schadenfreude-loving social media shamers. 

Automation, while often offering efficiency (and also offering advertisers cheaper media space on some of the big sites), can sometimes go comically awry. That happened last year when Spark used find and replace to get rid of the mentions of Telecom on its website after the rebrand and, in a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, ended up creating a new word: ‘Sparkmunications’. 

As Stuff wrote

A poster to technology website Geekzone first noticed the word cropping up on Spark’s website, and a Google search then threw up several examples. Spark’s website, for example, informed people that New Zealand Relay (NZ Relay) was “Sparkmunications for people who are deaf, hearing-impaired, deaf-blind, or speech-impaired”. Its website also proclaimed: “Part of Spark’s strategy has been to look for businesses to partner with where we can bring our Sparkmunications, marketing, networks and commercial expertise to the innovation and ingenuity of new startup companies.”

As Jamie Grace said on Twitter after Sparkmunications’ shortlived tenure: “A tip for the future. If you’re going to find and replace, tick ‘whole words only’.”

And there are plenty more entertaining find and replace oopsies. In a Radio Lab podcast from a few years ago, ​Ben Zimmer (the “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine), offered up a few editorial absurdities like that from One News Now, a Christian group that thought gay sounded too friendly. It set up an automatic change so that all mentions of the word would become ‘homosexual’. Cue ridiculous headline from an AP story about sprinter Tyson Gay. 

Similar hilarity ensued when Reuters set The Queen to switch to Queen Elizabeth. Who knew she had such powers? 

As well as an occasional reliance on find and replace, spellcheckers have been wreaking havoc on language for a while too. Zimmer says this is known as the Cupertino Effect, because, back in the day, if you typed the word ‘cooperation’ without a hyphen into Word, it would suggest Cupertino. 

As he wrote:

“Sure enough, there are dozens of Cupertinos to be found in online documents from the UN, EU, NATO, and other international organizations. “The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful,” a German NATO officer was quoted as saying. Meanwhile, the EU’s Scientific and Technical Research Committee proposed “stimulating cross-border Cupertino.” 

Things have improved a lot, of course. And Google’s ‘did you mean?’ function is scarily accurate.

“But no matter how much the techies tinker, I suspect the Cupertino effect will always be with us in one form or another. It’s best to heed the warning given by the Denver Post after it was embarrassed by an errant spellchecker: One sympathetic journalism expert said yesterday that spellcheck can be an editor’s enemy, “as Voldemort is to Harry Potter.” Or as our spellchecker would have it, “as Voltmeter is to Harry Potter.”

Dutch insurance company Central Beheer also released an ad last year showing the law of unintended consequences in action with self-driving cars. 

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