Are Big Brands inadvertently Funding Terrorism through Programmatic Advertising?

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The Times dropped one hell of a bombshell on the advertising industry this morning when it released an article claiming that many of the world's largest brands and companies have accidentally used a portion of their advertising budgets to fund terrorist organisations. The investigation undertaken by The Times, purports that hundreds of brand advertisements have been popping upon websites and videos promoting extremist ideology from nazi sympathisers and jihadists. Brands accused include big hitters such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, John Lewis, Halifax, Argos, Thomson, the V&A Museum, Waitrose and even Disney. It's a pretty serious allegation, but it comes with a caveat; they didn't know they were doing it. Ignorance really is bliss. Of course, online terror, for all its evils, is still big business, with a typical extremist website earning advertisers up to $7.60 for every 1,000 views. When you take into account that millions of misguided souls (and curious neckbeards) views these websites, that's a massive potential payday we're talking about. Of course, advertisers have been quick to blame programmatic advertising, which automates the process of online ad placing, and it would appear that the AI bots are indeed the most likely culprits of this misdemeanour, with the blacklists designed to prevent ads from appearing on extremist sites apparently not fit for purpose.


So the problem isn't with the advertisers themselves, but with programmatic advertising, so does this mean advertisers should be seriously reconsidering their stance on using it in the future Hicham Felter, a spokesman for advertisers trade body ISBA, explains his views: “Programmatic advertising is a big concern for us and the whole advertising industry. There is a greater risk of ads appearing in violent, pornographic, extremist and other ‘unsafe’ brand environments because of the volume and speed at which programmatic trading is carried out. The suspicion is that the surge in programmatic trading is being fuelled by the profit media agencies can make rather than because it delivers better results for their clients.” It certainly sounds like the ISBA know where they stand on the matter, but what about the rest of us? Is programmatic advertising worth the risk? Or should be hold off until the algorithms can learn to sort the jihadists from the job sites?


This isn't the first time programatic advertising has caused a major blunder either, as last year it was found that adverts for the US presidential election candidates were being found on ISIS propaganda videos. So, apparently our AI ad bots don't quite know yet how to differentiate between a legitimate news site and terror porn. Speaking of porn, actually, it was also reported by The Times (and as Mr Felter made clear above) that many branded ads were popping up on pornographic websites too, but if you think there's something wrong with that then you probably think there's something wrong with pornography itself, which probably makes you a hypocrite. Probably. Still, there's the argument to be made that certain brands might not be 'appropriate' for these sites. There's also the wider argument to be made that advertisers could be using programmatic advertising as a scapegoat, but I won't be poking that particular bear. Not today.


Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer from Kidderminster in the UK. The views expressed in this piece are his and his alone.

As more advertisers release their statements concerning the Times investigation, I'll be including them below:-

Quentin Le Pape, the Co-Founder and CEO of MOBKOI, an international mobile marketing agency, said: “In order to protect the reputable brand image that some companies have spent many years developing, it’s essential that they take back control of their online advertising campaigns with complete transparency on where they’re placed. The fact that some advertising agencies are completely unaware of where their programmatic campaigns are appearing is deeply concerning for the advertising industry. Programmatic advertising must be monitored and include an element of control in order to avoid what we see here as the worst possible outcome for brands.”

A Google Spokesperson said: “When it comes to content on YouTube, we remove flagged videos that break our rules and have a zero tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred. Some content on YouTube may be controversial and offensive, which is why we only allow advertising against videos which fall within our advertising guidelines. Our partners can also choose not to appear against content they consider inappropriate, and we have a responsibility to work with the industry to help them make informed choices.”

Neil Eatson, Founder at Appraise Digital, said: “Today’s report from The Times proves what those of us with media agency experience already knew: there is a deep-rooted lack of transparency in the marketer-agency-publisher relationship. Brand-side marketers with little time on their hands trust the experts; often following guidance without asking the important questions. Agencies meanwhile, are seeking out opportunity. What should be a healthy transparent relationship between marketers and their agencies has become opaque. Knowing how and why your cash is being spent today requires both the deep technical knowledge and the time to investigate it thoroughly. Agencies aren’t the enemy but their relationship with brand marketers is broken. The demand for transparency will only grow louder as brands start to seriously question why their marketing technology isn’t delivering the results it should. The first step is for an advertiser to question everything in their technology stack, then they can take back ownership of the problem.”


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