Ads at any cost?

Can algorithms be trusted to fill ad space with discretion?


Warning: This post is going to begin in one place and wind up in another. Hang onto your hat!

An opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times, “How to destroy the business model of Breitbart and Fake News,” details the work of a Twitter group called the Sleeping Giants.

The group is building one dam after another in the river of online ad revenue that flows to Breitbart News.

Advertisers may not know their digital ads are appearing on the site, for the ads are placed by an automated ad-serving process. The Sleeping Giants enlighten the advertisers, by sending them screenshots of their ads as they appeared, right next to Breitbart content.

The last thing an advertiser wants from a marketing campaign is for the ads to appear with content inconsistent with the company’s brand, confusing or even alienating the very consumers the campaign is designed to attract.

“The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys,” says the Times piece.

Any business that depends on ad revenue to survive is in trouble when that revenue dries up because advertisers walk away. Will Breitbart’s business model be weakened to the breaking point? We’ll see.

But wait. What happens when the problem runs the other way? (Yes, here’s that turn we warned you about. Stick with us!)

What happens when a website yields its ad-space inventory to a remote, automated ad-serving vendor, and then discovers that some of the ads running on its pages are contrary to everything the website stands for?

One of my daily pleasures is to read the online version of an award-winning New England newspaper, a leading light in traditional journalism circles. I was floored one morning when I saw, next to an excellent story I was reading to the bottom, an ad that shouted, “Should Trump Put Hillary in Jail?” Yellow letters over an unflattering headshot of Clinton proclaimed her “GUILTY!”

Curious, I hovered my computer’s cursor over the ad and read the line of code at the bottom of the browser window. The ad was served up by Google Ad Services. I clicked on it and landed on a self-proclaimed news site that was, if not a purveyor of fake news, certainly a slinger of clickbait headlines and one-sided stories.

I wondered whether the paper I’d originally been reading was aware it had sent me to a news site that was the antithesis of traditional journalism.


We’ve jumped from the role of the befuddled advertiser into the role of the befuddled publisher. Still with us? Sweet.

Here’s the business model question: Are all ads worth running?

If a news business model restricts ads to those served up by the paper itself (as in the old days), then the paper maintains control.

If a news business model depends on revenue from remote ad-serving processes and vendors, it must rely on whatever rules the vendors allow one to impose, as well as the vendors’ interpretation of those rules.

That seems to be a riskier proposition, all the way around.

Author: TAM

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