In movies about conspiracies there’s always a moment when the main character finds the clue in the stack of evidence and rushes off to tell someone.
Early on in my career I worked for a big multi-national advertising agency. My first year on the job I worked exclusively on what the industry calls ’digital display advertising’ and the rest of us just call ‘fucking banner ads’. In the process of designing those ads I discovered the tip of an iceberg of underhanded tactics and outright fraud but unlike in the movies there was no single dramatic moment of realisation. Instead I experienced a slow confirmation of my initial suspicion; that the whole enterprise didn’t seem to add up. To be clear; the realisation wasn’t that making obnoxious banner ads was bullshit (that’s a given), rather it was that the medium itself didn’t actually work.
At the time the advertising industry was going through a transition that had begun well before I arrived and is still playing out today. Starting in the late 90s the Mad-Men era of witty magazine spreads, billboards and big budget TV commercials had started to give way to an advertising landscape dominated by Google and Facebook. The shift to digital channels was driven, in part, by the promise of concrete data and measurable ‘Return On Investment’. Suddenly people with MBAs were cropping up in ad agencies threatening to bring rigour and empiricism to all the debauchery. To make matters worse clients had cottoned on to the same trend and began demanding evidence that all the money they funnelled into their ad agencies was actually being reflected in their revenue figures.
What that meant for people like me – on the banner-ad assembly line – was that we were suddenly receiving reports on how our ads were performing. It’s not worth going into he the byzantine world of online ad-buying but, for our purposes, you only need to know that there are four main players on the field:
1. The client (has the money)
2. The ad agency (has the artists and the developers)
3. The media agency (has the space where the banners go)
4. The website (has all our attention)
The problem is that the latter three players all have significant incentives to conspire to overstate the value of what they’re offering. The owners of the website overstate their traffic numbers, the media agencies overstate their viewing numbers and the advertising agencies overstate the effect of what they produce. Even if the client is aware that the game is rigged they don’t really have a way of contesting the statistics that are being fed back to them.
In my case the realisation that something was amiss came from two seperate discoveries. The first was a series of studies that identified a phenomenon known as ‘banner blindness’. Simply put; researchers have determined that internet users quickly learn to filter out any visual noise that gets in the way of actually using the site. Apparently about 86% of us do this without realising (setting aside the 25% of us who just install an ad-blocker).
The second discovery concerned the main metric used to determine the effectiveness of ad placements; the click-through rate (CTR). At the risk of stating the obvious the CTR is the subset of visitors to a given site that actually click on the ad. What became obvious very quickly was that the numbers being reported were not statistically significant- in many cases they only reflected the rate at which people accidentally click on ads.
The media agencies hid their woeful statistics by emphasising what they called ‘impressions’ (basically visitors), relative increases in click-through (after all 0.025 to 0.045 does, technically, represent a 200% improvement) and by reporting raw numbers (150 people clicking on your ad sounds good until you find out that half a million other people ignored it). They also put themselves in charge of deciding the size of things like ‘close’ buttons. That has led to the situation where more than half of all mobile banner ad click-throughs are accidental.
Of course the banner game wasn’t always rigged. The old hands at the agency could remember the start of the dot-com era when banner ads netted click through rates of five or even ten percent. Listening to stories about double-figure CTRs in the break room over free Peronis was the ad-land equivalent of listening to old fisherman talk about trawling Grand Banks before the cod collapse. If you went back even further, way back to 1994, rumour had it that the first banner ad had a click-through rate of 44%. That was like hearing about flocks of passenger pigeons or herds of bison.
At the time I must have thought I was the first person to recognise this law of diminishing returns. I started telling my colleagues that our banners weren’t working. ‘Look!’ I shouted out to all the fashionable account executives ‘the emperor has no clothes!’. Needless to say my objections didn’t go over so well with management. On the plus side they stopped inviting me to a lot of pointless meetings on ‘brand strategy’. In 2016 an anonymous Media Agency CEO gave an interview to Digiday where he confessed that:
“I’ve never seen any evidence that [banner-ads] works for clients. It’s a rare thing to be able to say that a £4 billion industry has maybe never contributed anything to a sale; and consumers wouldn’t miss if it disappeared tomorrow. Yet it’s still worth so much cash…We’ve tried to sex up something that was fundamentally broken. It doesn’t matter how you buy it or phrase it. If it’s still something no one ever responds to, what’s the point?”
It’s also important to remember that clients often knew they were being taken for a ride. Any suitably drunk marketing manager would readily admit that the whole banner ad industry was bullshit. But they also had a vested interest in keeping it going because there didn’t seem to be an alternative that would allow them to retain their big budget and their retinue of staff. Even agencies that didn’t make banner ads were reluctant to blow the whistle because they knew that deceptive practises in ad-land weren’t confined to web banners.
To make matters worse the task of actually making the things was always incredibly finicky due to an unchecked expectation that a client’s television commercial could somehow be squeezed into a space the size of a postage stamp and compressed to a file size under 40kb. For anyone playing at home that’s about the same amount of data as a two second Mp3 file. That meant the task of designing and animating the ads was always incredibly painstaking. Each banner-ad was a ship-in-a-bottle that might have to be dismantled if the client decided to make any last-minute amendments.
At the time I thought the biggest problem with this whole arrangement was that it wasted the time and talents of a lot of artists and developers. I worked with some wonderful people at that agency and seeing their efforts go towards simply propping up marketing budgets and lining the pockets of ad executives seemed like a minor tragedy.
But I never went looking for sympathy from my friends. I could imagine their response; ‘you have a comfortable, full-time desk job making stuff nobody sees – cry me a river’. It’s hard to argue with that. The worst injury I received doing that job was after friday night drinks when I dislocated my thumb trying to force one last complimentary beer into my bag. But it turns out that futility compounds stress. When I started working on those banners I had patience for the process. Once I realised that the task was more or less meaningless all that patience evaporated.
When I left the agency I assumed that particular strain of advertising would collapse under the weight of its own bullshit. Instead it appears to have metastasised. It’s estimated that the total spend on display advertising last year was $44 billion dollars. To put that in perspective; that’s a few billion dollars more than the revenue generated by the entire US film industry- all channelled into a medium that we intentionally or instinctively ignore.
As the online ad industry has grown it has also given birth to a range of sophisticated techniques designed to boost the perceived value of ad placements and falsify statistics. The online ad-buying system has become, in the words of one insider ‘a shadowy black box filled with turds and spiders’. Last year a US court filed indictments against a group of people involved in a $36 million ad fraud case. The suspects offered ad placements on counterfeit domains for publications like Vogue and The Economist and then used an army of bots to fake engagement with the ads. Journalist Max Read described the matrix-like world that they managed to create in an article for Intelligencer:
“Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.”
If the bots fail the fraudsters can always employ ‘click farms’ where thousands of computer emulations or actual devices are hooked up to artificially increase views on websites, ads, games and social media accounts. If you’re having trouble imagining what a click farm looks like they’re every bit as weird and dystopian as you would expect; endless racks of glowing smartphones and computer monitors with applications spilling across them like cards at the end of a game of solitaire. If you’ve ever come across someone on Instagram with two pictures of their dog and ten thousand followers this is where they came from.
What’s become clear over the last few years is that the real damage caused by online ad industry corruption was not wasted design hours or wasted marketing budgets but the indirect sponsorship of a vast system for falsifying internet activity. It turns out that the same techniques used by advertising and media agencies to fleece their clients are just as effective when employed by nation states and special interest groups to spread disinformation.
In a report entitled Digital Deceit researchers Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott described fake news not as an aberration but as the expected result of a system designed to exploit our attention.
“Political disinformation succeeds because it follows the structural logic, benefits from the products and perfects the strategies of the broader digital advertising market”
Ghosh stops short of acknowledging advertising as just another form of disinformation but it’s clear that the two activities represent two sides of the same coin. As it stands the use of online ad-buying systems for political purposes might actually force some of the major players to fix address the issue. For many years social networks like Facebook and Twitter have resisted moderating their sites and deleting bots because they make money from all the fake activity that occurs on their platforms. Now that they’re under pressure from lawmakers they may actually begin to self-regulate.
Personally I’m hoping they don’t reform themselves. I hope they double down on protecting all the fake accounts and fake impressions and devalue their own currency in the process. What we need at this stage is the collapse that I expected way back in 2013. If that happens there’s a chance that an entirely new business model might rise from their ashes.
In the mean time; install AdBlock.
Study published by the Association for Computing Machinery: High-cost Banner Blindness
Digiday Interview: Confessions of a media agency CEO on display advertising
Display Advertising Summary: Banner Advertising Stats and Trends for 2017
Article on Marketing Week: Agency kickbacks are turning media buying into a black box
Intelligencer Article: How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.
New America Policy Paper: Digital Deceit The Technologies Behind Precision Propaganda on the Internet