Bob Hoffman
Mar 14, 2022

Billions of ads misdirected, and no one noticed

THE AD CONTRARIAN: Revelation about billions of misdirected ads—that no one noticed for nine months—exposes the elephant in the programmatic-advertising room. But which elephant is it?

Billions of ads misdirected, and no one noticed

For years I have been writing that advertisers who spend money in the programmatic ecosystem have no idea where their ads are running, who they're buying from, or what they're getting.

This week, The Wall Street Journal gave us a spectacular example of just how screwed up and rotten the programmatic dreckosystem system is.

According to independent researcher Braedon Vickers, as reported by the Journal, for nine months USA Today's parent company, Gannett, has been sending billions of ads to the wrong places and nobody knew about it. Advertisers who thought they were paying for advertising on the USA Today news site instead had their ads appear in places like Gannett's Lebanon (PA) Daily News.

I am willing to accept Gannett's explanation that none of this was intentionally fraudulent and it was all a tech screw-up. But to my mind this is worse than fraud. It is not so much a black mark on Gannett as it is on the entire online ad industry. How can billions of of ads have run in the wrong places without...

  • A single brand noticing that their ads weren't where they were supposed to be?
  • A single agency knowing what the hell they were buying?
  • A single fraud detection company, or media auditing firm unearth the fact that...billions of ads went to the wrong places?

You truly cannot make this up.

This debacle wasn't just for discount dentists and miracle vitamin supplements. Major brands like Sears, Nike, Adidas, Ford, State Farm, Starbucks, Kia, Marriott, Capital One, American Red Cross, and Spotify were involved.

There had to be thousands and thousands of advertisers who thought they were buying one thing but were getting stuck with another. And not a single genius brand manager had a clue. Not a single agency media director had a clue. Not a single ad verification "guarantor" had a clue.

Programmatic advertisers just take money, throw it up in the air, and believe any horseshit they are fed about where it lands.

As the great Augustine Fou said, "it appears that no one...in the entire programmatic supply chain detected the 'error...':

  • None of the ad exchanges and DSPs caught this.
  • None of the fraud-detection tech companies caught this.
  • None of the TAG "certified against fraud" companies caught this.
  • None of the adtech companies with MRC accreditation caught this.

"If Gannett didn't correct this 'error,' and the researchers didn't document...the issue, how long would this have continued?" Fou wrote. "Ad buyers were merrily buying ads thinking the ads ran on USA Today, when they did not..."

Bad guys do this all the time with the intent of fooling the system. If good guys do it accidentally with no intent to fool, but still can't be detected by the clowns who are supposed to be guarding the jewels, what chance do these pinheads have against the bad guys?

Fou adds, "Gannett's mess-up exposes the elephant in the room...but the question is which elephant was it? That no one is looking? That fraud-detection tech doesn't work? That fraud-detection worked but everyone ignored it anyway? This went on for nine months and across billions of bid requests. Which fu*king elephant was it?"

In a dainty bit of understatement, Adweek had this to say, "Evidence that Gannett had been misleading advertisers for months calls into question existing prevention efforts." No it doesn't. It calls into question the entire shitshow that is programmatic advertising.

It is a cesspool of monumental proportions. Nobody has any idea what the fuck is going on. It is the blackest of black boxes.

Anyone who is paying for fraud protection or ad verification and believes the bullshit they're getting from their suppliers is an idiot. Anyone who reads the metrics and reports they get from their agency and thinks they are reliable is a moron. Anyone who listens to their marketing peoples' assurances is a fool.

The stars of this clown show are clueless, incompetent bullshit artists, and fraudsters who con the rubes in the advertising and marketing industry out of tens of billions of dollars annually without the slightest risk to themselves. But my favorites are the incompetent, irresponsible slime buckets who pat the advertisers on the head and say, "Don't worry, sweetie. It's the other guys who are getting screwed. You're protected. See? Here's our report."

And the beat goes on...


Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.

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