The National Environment Agency (NEA) was recently named to be one of many brands affected by ad misplacements on controversial sites. News of this first broke on The Straits Times, which reported that a NEA video advertisement was found on a website, which it claimed had articles supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
However, NEA was not the only brand to be affected. A quick check by Marketing showed that on the same site, banner ads from brands such as DBS, Uber, TAFEP, Malaysia Airlines and Hilton were also placed.
Marketing has since reached out to these brands for comment. A NEA spokesperson said that the advertisement was part of a broader digital media network placement, and the government body was unaware that its advertisement had appeared on that particular website.
“NEA works with our contracted media buying agency to put in place guidelines on advertising on appropriate websites,” a NEA spokesperson said when contacted by Marketing. The spokesperson added that upon being informed, NEA immediately instructed its media agency to remove the advertisement from the website, and as at 1:00pm on 23 February 2017, the advertisement had been removed.
“Given the nature of programmatic advertising that relies on technology to serve advertisements onto multiple websites, NEA will continue to monitor our outreach efforts, to ensure that future NEA advertisements do not appear on unsuitable websites,” the spokesperson said.
Commenting on the matter, a DBS spokesperson explained that in the event that a DBS/POSB ad appears inadvertently on an inappropriate website, it would work with its agencies to remove the ad immediately and place the website on the blocked list.
“DBS has in place a set of guidelines that determine the placement of our ads. We avoid websites with inappropriate content such as violence, mature content and gambling. This list is regularly updated,” the DBS spokesperson added.
In a statement to Marketing, a TAFEP spokesperson said that it had been alerted about the publication of its ad on an inappropriate website.
"We have asked our appointed agency to remove the ad immediately. We take this seriously and are working closely with our agency to review why this has happened and improve their placement of our ads," the spokesperson added.
Similarly, a Hilton spokesperson said that the brand pays careful attention to where its brand is represented and it is currently working with the relevant parties to investigate the matter and ensure appropriate actions are being taken. He explained that there are currently strict guidelines in place, using filters and other further controls, to ensure advertising sites are of high quality and align with brand values.
“Additionally, we require that our partners advertise only on websites that are sensitive to local cultural considerations and do not contain any inappropriate content, including anything offensive,” the Hilton spokesperson added.
Google, one of the leading solutions providers for the programmatic ad placement space told Marketing that it had been made aware of some instances of ads running on religious sites with “reportedly controversial content”. It clarified that in the specific case of NEA, it did not find any evidence of ads appearing against content that violates its policies and that it is “constantly monitoring its ad networks to ensure that they comply with its policies”.
Google also added that it would take action if a site is deemed to not be compliant.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred, and only allow advertising against content which falls 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,” the Google spokesperson said.
Is programmatic getting way too problematic?
Misplaced ads are not new problem in the industry. But what happens if your ad falls on a site which is classified as inflammatory to some?
According to Ryan Lim, principal consultant and founding partner of QED Consulting, it is not fair to blame advertisers entirely for these situations as “programmatic can be problematic” due to its highly automated nature.
This is because when it comes to the programmatic space, its processes are highly automated. Hence, the results vary for everyone due to the different types of tags used on programmatic buying platforms.
“It is also difficult to pin point which party exactly needs to take responsibility as there is no single party responsible for every ‘white list’ or ‘black list’ or which websites are deemed as acceptable or unacceptable,” Lim explained. He added that moving forward, there needs to be an industry effort to curb this problem and determine which websites are acceptable and unacceptable.
“One way this can be done is having a centrally maintained list that programmatic by default needs to have access to. This pre-approved list of websites cannot be incendiary in nature, and needs to be overseen by a neutral and authoritative party with the support of the whole industry. This way there would be more active rather than passive enforcement,” Lim said.
Meanwhile, Darren Woolley, founder and global CEO of TrinityP3, explained that these issues are becoming increasingly common in situations when low media price is more important than safety.
“Buying on the lowest price without the checks and verification will lead to mistakes being made such as your ads appearing on sites and in environments that either reflect poorly on your brand, or fund organisations that the support of reflects poorly on your organisation,” he explained.
While programmatic is a terrific way to reach more specific target audiences, he added that the problem is not programmatic per se but the way it is often used. When used properly, programmatic buying can allow a brand to specifically target audiences that are more likely to buy your product or services.
“But if it is used simply to deliver mass audiences at the lowest possible price then mistakes get made,” he said.
Woolley added that to combat the issue, advertisers need to be willing to look past targeting at the lowest possible cost. While quality environments often come at a higher cost – they are worth the extra expense.
“If you are measuring your programmatic performance on CPM then you will get what you pay for,” Woolley explained.
He added that brands need to pay for independent verification, and preferably have a direct arrangement with one of the verification companies. It should not just rely on their agency or programmatic trading desk to provide this service as it may compromises the "independent effectiveness".
In 2015, brands too came into the spotlight following the shutdown of local socio-political website, The Real Singapore (TRS) which also operated on advertising revenue, which is used to cover costs. Similarly, it appeared some marketers may have unknowingly given their support to the site, whether aware or not. This was also due to programmatic ad placement and marketing.