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When programmatic ads meet extremist content, a human touch is the answer

20.03.2017 - by Sean Philip


Much as they might want it to be the case, brands do not exist in a political vacuum. The 20th Century is peppered with instances of companies being involved in major historical and political events. There are some examples that brands want to be remembered for, and others they would rather we forget. In 2017, we may be seeing the 21st Century’s most significant example so far of brands and marketers inadvertently getting caught up in global politics.

The year began as any other, with bold claims about the future of the industry, including heralding 2017 as the year of AI – when intelligent machines would start taking over the creative side of the industry; having seemingly conquered the media buying side. Coca-Cola wanted to put their trust in complicated algorithms to develop their next generation of ads, and we were going to witness a new dawn of computers as creators.

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But alongside these ambitious proclamations, a more prosaic aspect of the industry was starting to crumble.

The art (or rather, science) of media buying was something we’d previously assumed machines had wrapped up. But amidst claims from The Guardian and Mercedes-Benz that ads they were paying for were appearing against ISIS propaganda and neo-Nazi ‘fake news’ websites – thus indirectly funding these organisations – it became clear that something about this intelligent, real-time machine led process was fundamentally flawed.

By February, in response to a high profile campaign, over 1,000 companies had manually removed the far right website Breitbart from their media plans – a symbolic action indicating that the issue was coming to a head. And now, Havas has pulled all their clients’ advertising from Google’s Display Network and YouTube, whilst they await assurances from the online ad giant that sufficient provisions are in place to prevent their ads being paired with any extremist content in the future.

They may be waiting a long time.

The sheer scale and frequency of content creation across YouTube and the internet at large makes this a near impossible task – 300 hours of video is uploaded every minute to YouTube alone. Google does not have the manpower to physically check every piece for association with extremist organisations. Neither do they want to. They are not there to police the internet. And herein lies the problem – no one is there to police the internet. Google relies on users flagging inappropriate material to remove it from their ad network, but this is an imprecise and slow process.


As long as the internet is free and open, and as long as the current advertising model remains in place (Google’s Display Network being the largest, with over 14 million websites in their inventory), there’s always a danger that brands advertising in this way will see their ads appearing next to unpleasant material.

As we see it, there are only two possible solutions. Either regulate the internet to make it a lot more difficult for extremists to publish, or change the way the advertising model works. Costs, logistics and the implications for free speech render the former impossible, so we’re left with the latter.

As the major players in this industry, we believe it’s up to agencies to instigate this change.

We also believe that a change doesn’t need to be painful for scrupulous agencies. There’s no doubt machines have helped move marketing forward in the digital age, but we’ve developed the technology quicker than the moral safeguards needed to adequately control it. The rise of programmatic advertising has given us the means and opportunity to target any specified audience, wherever they may be, but our over reliance on the technology has allowed us to be absolved of the responsibility for where our ads appear, and who they’re financing.

We need to take back some of that responsibility.

We need to work with online publishers whose values and readerships correlate with our brands and audiences. That will mean we need to be more selective. We need to take some lessons from print advertising (even if we don’t like to admit it). Focusing on a few core publications that deeply resonate with our audiences, rather than the scatter gun approach to online advertising that has evolved over time, means we can build deeper and more meaningful engagements. Technology has a role here – to help support more efficient and effective media partnerships, but in short, we need a more human touch.

This approach will also mean a larger share of ad revenues for shrewd media publishers with the experience and expertise to craft quality ad formats. Incidentally, this will be music to the ears of the likes of The Guardian. A cynic might even argue that that isn’t incidental at all, but rather the true reason the papers are rallying behind this cause.

Despite this year starting out with big claims that the rise of the machines is finally upon us, it may be that the good old human touch is the most innovative change the industry can affect in 2017.

+ Update – 24.03.2017

Since we published this a few days ago, Google has responded to these issues by outlining the steps they will be taking to reassure advertisers that their brands are in safe hands. In amongst announcements that it’ll be giving advertisers easier access to ad placement controls, the search engine giant asserts that “We’ll be hiring significant numbers of people and developing new tools powered by our latest advancements in AI and machine learning to increase our capacity to review questionable content for advertising.”

The implications of this development could be significant. By adjusting its focus from giving machines the power to place ads, to using them to identify offensive content, Google positions itself as more responsible for its users’ content. After traditionally shying away from any role resembling global internet police, will this issue force them to take on a more hands-on role in the censorship and free-speech debate? This will be a very interesting one to watch this year.

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