Online advertising: Try being relevant without stalking everyone
“I know 97% of my programmatic ad budget is wasted, I just don’t know which 97%” is the genius alternative headline of Bob Hoffman’s new year blogpost, which somehow manages to be at once compelling and flippant. While he doesn’t mention the Digital Services Act, Hoffman provides essential background reading as we enter the business end of the EU co-legislators negotiations.
Whether the DSA should regulate or ban outright ‘targeted ads’ has become the battleground of the imagination. The online ad ‘duopoly’ Google and Facebook and their overt and covert proxies have been avidly setting up a stage for discussion convenient for their own agendas, that is – the threat to “targeting” with “relevant ads” rather than the threat to all of us of ubiquitous tracking.
Who could have predicted such a GDPR-style full-court press of EU lawmakers?
All this astroturfing is ill-served by revelations in recent days. First, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by Amnesty Tech the vast majority of the SMEs – on whose behalf big tech pretend to plead – oppose tracking-based advertising but cannot avoid it because it is the only model on offer in a concentrated ecosystem dominated by two or three gigantic platform intermediaries. Second, unsealed evidence in a lawsuit brought by US state attorneys-general alleges Google have been systematically spiking their ad exchange to deceive and rip off both advertisers and publishers, while at the same time colluding with Facebook to give them lower prices for in–app impressions in those ad auctions.
Does the adtech ecosystem have to be like this? Is the surveillance that fires a $64.8 billion industry really worth the cost to the privacy of billions of individuals, even assuming that it’s legal? Who are the real winners and losers from Hoffman’s Programmatic Poop Funnel? How sustainable can it be for 23% of the 160 million tonnes CO2e emitted by online advertising is ‘invalid traffic’
A nine-month study launched by the Commission on these and other questions has just got now underway. The question is not targeting or personalisation or relevant ads versus irrelevant ads. The question is what alternatives there are to advertising based on tracking aka surveillance, aka stalking, which are sustainable, respectful and beneficial to the publishers and advertisers who are actually offering valuable content and products for society.