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How advertising broke the world

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How advertising broke the world

Divulgation: Veteran journalist Steven Brill is founder or co-founder of several publications and companies, including NewsGuard, where he is co-CEO and co-editor-in-chief. Among other services, NewsGuard offers advertisers brand safety services aimed at countering the dangers of unvetted programmatic advertising. This story is taken from his new book, The death of the truth.

In 2019, in addition to Vladimir Putin’s government, Warren Buffett was the largest funder of Sputnik News, the Russian disinformation website controlled by the Kremlin. Not that the legendary champion of American capitalism had an alter ego who woke up every morning wondering how he could help fund Vladimir Putin’s global propaganda network. It was because Geico, the giant American insurance company and subsidiary of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, was the main advertiser on the American version of Sputnik News’ global network of websites.

Nor was it because a Geico marketing executive had decided that advertising in the Russian disinformation milieu was a good idea. That would have been especially unlikely, not only because of the Buffett connection, but also because Geico stands for Government Employees Insurance Company and has roots dating back to the 1930s, providing insurance to civilians and members of the military who worked for the government. US. not his Russian adversary.

In fact, no one at Geico or its advertising agency had any idea that their ads would appear on Sputnik, much less what anti-American content would be shown alongside the ads. How could they? What person or army of people at Geico or their agency could have read 44,000 websites?

Geico’s ads were placed through a programmatic advertising system that was invented in the late 1990s with the development of the Internet. It exploded starting in the mid-2000s and is now the overwhelmingly dominant advertising medium. Programmatic algorithms, not people, decide where to place most of the ads we now see on websites, social media platforms, mobile devices, streaming television, and increasingly hear on podcasts. The figures involved are mind-blowing. If Geico’s ad campaign were typical of programmatic campaigns for broad-based consumer products and services, each of its ads would have been placed on an average of 44,000 websites, according to a study conducted for the leading trade association for big-box advertisers. brands.

Geico isn’t the only strong American brand funding the Russians. During the same period that the insurance company’s ads appeared on Sputnik News, 196 other programmatic advertisers bought ads on the website, including Best Buy, E-Trade and Progressive Insurance. Sputnik News’ sister propaganda outlet, RT.com (once called Russia Today until someone in Moscow decided to camouflage its origin), earned advertising revenue from Walmart, Amazon, PayPal and Kroger, among others.

Every business day, approximately 2,500 people sit in front of desktop or laptop computers using these programmatic advertising algorithms to spend tens of millions of dollars per hour. They work in advertising agencies around the world or, in the case of some major companies, in their in-house advertising shops. Their titles may be “programmatic specialist,” “programmatic associate,” or “campaign manager.” What they have in common is that they usually have their first job after finishing university. Although many are working from home post-Covid, if they are in the office, they sit in cubicles in large open spaces that resemble the trading floor of a brokerage firm.

A replaced keyboard mad Men

Let’s call our archetype specialist, Trevor, and assume he works in the programmatic advertising unit of one of the top five advertising agency holding companies globally. He probably makes a salary of between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. Trevor will log into what is known as a demand side platform. Think of it as a kind of stock market for buying advertising instead of shares of a company. The demand side platform is where all the available ad space on every page of every website in the world that the platform has pooled together as its inventory is made available to a buyer like Trevor.

In close proximity, or in close contact if working remotely, will be another junior staff member with the title “media buyer”, “planner” or “campaign manager”, whose job is to ensure that the advertising effort, or “campaign,” which has been planned by the higher-ups of the creative and planning teams is communicated to Trevor. This includes uploading the actual product ad to the demand-side platform for deployment and also providing Trevor, sitting in front of the demand-side platform dashboard, with the most important targeting decisions the planners have made: Who should be reached? with what message? Yes, humans are still involved in choosing the sales strategy and creating the message (although generative AI can change that too). However, humans do not decide which publisher (the local newspaper website or a website that pretends to be a local news site but publishes Russian propaganda) receives the ad.

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