Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff

Advertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.

Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.

Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.

First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.

Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making brands sponsoring a game familiar to everybody watching it.

In their landmark study, “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375–390), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. Thus branding is about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative one.

Plain old brand advertising also paid for the media we enjoyed. Still does, in fact. And much more. Without brand advertising, pro sports stars wouldn’t be getting eight and nine figure contracts.

But advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

To unpack this a bit, let’s start with two big value-subtracts of adtech: 1) un-clarity about where any given ad comes from; and 2) un-clarity about whether or not any given ad is personal.

For example, take the ad that appears for me right now, on my Firefox browser, in this Washington Post story:

What put that ad there?

If I click on the tiny blue button on the upper right corner of the ad (called “Ad Choices,” which I’ll visit later), I get to a linkproof “About Google Ads” page, so I guess Google placed this one. The page mostly pitches Google advertising to potential advertisers, but also says “you may also see ads based on your interests and more.” How do they know my interests? By tracking me, of course. Did I ask for that, or know how the tracking happens? No. Does what Google sees me doing actually reflect my interests? Not always. I do lots of searching for stuff that has passing importance to me, or little if any at all (such as when I look something up for a friend or family member).

So I don’t know if this ad is based on tracking. I suspect it is not, because the ad is nowhere near any interest of mine. I also don’t know why it was the only ad that got past the tracking protection I have operating right now on Firefox. Toward finding an answer, here are the trackers my Ghostery add-on says are following me on the Washington Post site:

Google isn’t one of them. But then, Ghostery doesn’t see, or stop, as many trackers as does Privacy Badger, which I also have installed. Here’s Privacy Badger’s list:

Still no clue about the Ziluli ad. But I suppose that trackers turned off by Ghostery and PrivacyBadger (both of which follow and selectively valve tracking) accounts for the white spaces flanking editorial matter in the Washington Post, each with the word “Ad” or “Advertisement” in tiny type. In this respect, I also suppose that both serve as ad blockers, even though my intention isn’t to block ads. Just tracking.

So I guess the Google/Zulily ad got through because it either wasn’t tracking-based or because I have Ghostery and/or Privacy Badger set to wave it through. But I don’t know, and that’s my point here. Not knowing where the hell an ad comes from is a value-subtract, and just one of the many we get with adtech.

To see what goes in those empty spaces, I just disabled all tracking and ad blocking on a different browser — Google’s Chrome — and loaded the same Washington Post page there.

While the page loaded almost instantly in Firefox, it took twenty-seven seconds to load the whole thing in Chrome. The ads, seven of them, were the last things to load. (And that was over a fairly fast home wi-fi connection: 35Mbps downstream — I just checked).

So, what do I see now?

Instead of the Zulily ad I saw in Firefox, there is an ad for the Washington Post’s Wine Club. A space-filler, I guess. Again, I can’t tell. (For what it’s worth, I like wine, but I’m no connoisseur.)

Only one of the six other loaded ads features the little blue Ad Choices button. It’s one for the Gap. When I click on it, this comes up:

Then, when I then click on “Set your Ad Preferences” there (turning it the purple you see), I am sent to Gap Ad Choices, which appears to be a TRUSTe thing. The copy starts,

Interest-based ads are selected for you according to your interests as determined by companies such as ad networks and data aggregators. These companies collect information about your activity — like the pages you visit — and use it to show you ads tailored to your interests; this practice is sometimes referred to as behavioral advertising.
You can prevent our partner companies listed below from showing you targeted ads by submitting opt-outs. Opting-out will prevent you from receiving targeted ads from these companies, but you may continue to see our ads that are not shown through the use of behavioral advertising.

I’ve never heard of any of those companies, or those on the PrivacyBadger list, except for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and a few other familiar names. Nor have you, unless you’re in the adtech business. And even then, you might not know all of them. So how can you make informed choices about them?

You can’t, and that’s another problem with adtech.

It’s important to understand that these companies are not brands, except inside the adtech echo chamber, which includes a mess of different breeds: trading desks, SSPs (Supply Side Platforms), DSPs (Demand Side Platforms), ad exchanges, RTB (real time bidding) and other auctions, retargeters, DMPs (Data Management Platforms), tag managers, data aggregators, brokers, resellers, media management systems, ad servers, gamifiers, real time messagers, social tool makers, and many more.

To see how huge this field is, visit Ghostery’s Global Opt-Out page, which lists companies that “use your data to target ads at you.” I haven’t counted them, but to get to the bottom of the list I had to page down twenty-eight times. And it’s still just a partial list. Lots of other companies, such as real-time auction houses, aren’t there.

If you’re game for more self-torture, check out LUMAscapes such as this one:

Or go to the master Ad Choices page. The headline there says “WILL THE RIGHT ADS FIND YOU?” — as if you want any ads at all. The copy below says,

Welcome to Your AdChoices, where you’re in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising — ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.
The Advertising Option Icon gives you transparency and control for
 interest-based ads:
Find out when information about your online interests is being gathered or used to customize the Web ads you see. Choose whether to continue to allow this type of advertising.
Watch three short videos to learn how the Icon gives you control of when the right ads find you.

And if you want to go completely bonkers, try watching the videos, which feature the little Clippy-like ad choices icon as the “star” in “your personal ads.”

“Bullshit” is too weak a word for what this is. Because it’s also delusional. Meaning disconnected from reality. Psychotic.

Reality is the marketplace. It’s you and me. And we have no demand for this stuff. In fact our demand, on the whole, is negative, for good reason. According to TRUSTe’s 2015 Privacy Index,

  • 92% of consumers worry about their privacy online. The top cause of concern there: “Companies collecting and sharing my personal information with other companies.”
  • 42% are more worried about their privacy than one year ago.
  • 91% “avoid doing business with companies who I do not believe protect my privacy online.”
  • 77% “have moderated their online activity in the last year due to privacy concerns.”
  • 86% “have taken steps to protect their privacy in the last twelve months.”
  • 63% “deleted cookies
  • 44% “changed privacy settings”
  • 25% “have turned off location tracking”

Ad blocking has also increased. According to PageFair’s latest report,

  • “Globally, the number of people using ad blocking software grew by 41% year over year.” (Q2 2014 to Q2 2015.) In the U.S. the growth rate was 48%. In the U.K. the rate was 82%.
  • In June 2015 “there were 191 million monthly active users for the major browser extensions that block ads.”

Update: a May 2016 PageFair report also says “At least 419 million people are blocking ads on smartphones.”

I should pause here to add that I use four different browsers on this laptop alone, and make it my business (as the chief instigator of ProjectVRM) to try out many different VRM (vendor relationship management) tools and services, including those for privacy protection, among which are tracking protection and ad blocking systems. These include Abine, Adblock Plus, Disconnect, Emmett‘s Web Pal, Ghostery, Mozilla’s Lightbeam, PrivacyFix, Privowny and others you’ll find listed here. I switch these on and off and use them in different combinations to compare results. The one thing I can say for sure, after doing this for years, is that it’s damn near impossible for any human being, even the geekiest, to get their heads around all the things adtech is doing to us, through our browsers and mobile apps, or how all these different approaches to prophylaxis work, especially if more than one is working at the same time in a browser.

The easiest thing for everybody is to install (or switch on) a single ad and tracking blocker and be done with it. Which is exactly what we’re seeing in the research above.

Another delusion of the “interest-based advertising” business is the belief that we “trade” our personal data for the goods that advertising pays for. In October 2010 John Battelle wrote, “the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal.” I responded,

In fact we don’t know, we’re not cool with it, and it isn’t a deal.
If we knew, the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have a reason to clue us in at such length.
We’re cool with it only to the degree that we are uncomplaining about it — so far.
And it isn’t a “deal” because nothing was ever negotiated.

But adtech grew like crazy, rationalized by the faith John summarized. Then, in June of 2015, came The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation, a report from the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania. In it Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper say that’s not the case. Specifically,

…a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data — and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

And it isn’t just about “giving up” data. It’s about submitting to constant surveillance by unseen entities, and participating, unwillingly, in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, which she says,

…establishes a new form of power in which contract and the rule of law are supplanted by the rewards and punishments of a new kind of invisible hand…
In this new regime, a global architecture of computer mediation turns the electronic text of the bounded organization into an intelligent world-spanning organism that I call Big Other. New possibilities of subjugation are produced as this innovative institutional logic thrives on unexpected and illegible mechanisms of extraction and control that exile persons from their own behavior.

And yet, scary as it is, Big Other is limited by three realities that are now beginning to become clear through the veil of adtech’s delusions.

First is the paradox Don Marti isolates in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful: “The more targetable that an ad medium is, the less it’s worth…For targeted advertising, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If it fails, it’s a waste of time. If it works, it’s worse, a violation of the Internet/brain barrier.”

Second is adtech’s belief that we are nothing but consumers, and that all are ready at all times to hear a sales pitch — especially a personalized one.

Third is that this actually works, when most of the time it does not.

For example, I just looked up Mt. Pisgah at maps.google.com. In “search nearby” (which Google volunteers as a default search choice, along with a picture of a pizza), Google’s search algorithm assumes that I’m looking, by default, for hotels and restaurants. But what if I’m looking for hiking or biking trails, or something else that costs no money? No luck. Google instead gives me a hotel, a lake and another wilderness area. In fact Google (which one might think knows me well, since I’ve been a signed-in user of their services since the beginning, and using Chrome here as well) has no idea why I want to look up that mountain. (In fact my reason was to illustrate this point, for this essay. Nothing more.)

I just went back through the last seven days of my browser usage on Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera, to see if there is any hint about anything I might ever want to buy. Out of many hundreds of pages I’ve visited, there is a single hint: a search I did for a replacement remote control for my sister’s Sansui TV. (I didn’t buy it, but I did email her a link.)

Even Amazon, which deals with us mostly when we are in shopping mode, constantly promotes stuff to us that we looked for or bought once and will never buy again. (For years after my grandson had moved past his obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, Amazon pushed Thomas-like merchandise at me.)

Worse, Amazon constantly mixes wheat and chaff banner ads, so you don’t know whether what you’re seeing is there because Amazon knows you, or because it’s blasting the same promo at everybody.

This has been the case lately with Amazon’s “Home Essentials” banner, “presented by Pure Wow.” If you click on the Pure Wow logo, you get sent to a page that identifies the company as “a women’s lifestyle brand dedicated to finding unique ways to elevate your everyday.” Is Pure Wow a division of Amazon? Is it a company that paid Amazon to place the ad as a branding exercise? Does Amazon think I’m a woman? WTF is actually going on?

In this case it’s possible to tell, by looking at Amazon through a browser uncontaminated by cookies or spyware. (In my case that’s Opera.) This is how I discovered that Pure Wow is a simple brand ad, blasted at a population. In other words, wheat. But the fact that it’s hard to tell is itself a value-subtract, for Amazon and Pure Wow, as well as for the rest of us. It also illustrates Don Marti’s earlier point, that the value of a medium varies inversely with its target-ability. In other words, because Amazon is targetable, the ads it runs are worth less than they would be if Amazon was not.

One more reason why wheat pays better than chaff. No car or beer company is making ball clubs and players rich by advertising in Amazon. Or by targeting people adtech spams with personalized messages in online ‘zines, just because its robots think think the targets are ready for a new car or a beer.

Yet marketing is utterly obsessed with snarfing up personal data constantly and promoting stuff at people in real time, and forgetting disregarding the wheat-producing and customer-respecting marketing fundamentals taught, for example, by Theodore Levitt and Peter Drucker.

Marketing is now so high from smoking its own exhaust that it completely misses the fact that 100% of the time we are dealing with stuff we’ve already bought, and often need serviced. (Like my sister with the lost remote control.)

Thus we have the strange irony of marketing talking about “brand value” and “loyalty” while doing almost nothing to serve actual customers who need real help, besides answering complaint tweets and routing inquiries to robots and call centers (which are increasingly the same thing).

Now think about what happens when adtech actually works — for example, when it serves up an ad somebody can actually use. The actual value of that ad is still compromised by the creepy suspicion that we’re seeing it because we’re being followed, without permission, using who-knows-what, based on unwanted personal data leakage through tracking beacons sucking like leeches on our virtual flesh, and put there by parties that may not be Google or Facebook (which to some degree we actually trust).

Kapersky Labs calls the leeches “adware.” Specifically, adware is the payload of cookies, programs and other code inserted into your browser, your computer and your mobile device, mostly without your knowledge or permission. The adtech industry associations (such as the IAB and the DAA) say adware is all about giving you a better “advertising experience” or whatever. But to the Kaperskys of the world, adware is an attack vector for bad actors such as malware spreaders , looking to siphon money off an easily gamed system, often by planting hard-to-find bots and other malicious files inside the hardware and software through which we live our digital lives. Kapersky’s 2014 report, for example, is full of arcana that’s hard for civilians to understand, but is worth reading just to get an idea of how very bad this problem is for everybody.

Or, if you’d rather not, visit the writings of security expert T.Rob Wyatt. In Online advertising is the new digital cancer, he explains,

I often refer to AdTech as the Research & Development arm of organized cybercrime. The criminals no longer have to spend money inventing new ways of penetrating the mobile device or PC since they can purchase a highly targeted ad for mere pennies instead. Thanks to very effective personalization capabilities delivered by ad networks, the cybercriminals can slice and dice their content and tailor the malware for specific audiences.
There are many ways to personalize content. For instance, do you ever wonder why we so much email spam is obvious? Spam is often riddled with misspellings, bad grammar, and other glaring clues as to its malicious intent. We think “those must be some really dumb spammers” as we click delete. Who would fall for that, right? Actually, that is intentional. People who are so eager for the promised product that they are willing to overlook those obvious clues are self-selecting as the most gullible targets, and therefore the most lucrative. Malvertising relies on a similar filtering mechanism: Anyone NOT using ad blockers is self-selecting into the cybercriminal’s target pool.

To cure advertising of its cancer, to keep Madison Avenue from driving drunk on digital, we need to separate advertising’s wheat from its chaff. (Three metaphors mixed into one sentence! Might be a record.)

The place where that’s easiest to do, and where it counts most, is at the personal level: in our own browsers, apps and devices. Because it’s much easier to defeat the problem ourselves than by appealing to policy-makers and the industrial giants that rule the commercial Web (and to some degree policy-makers as well). And we’re already part way there, thanks to friendly makers of browsers, extensions and add-ons that are already on the case.

Hence…

An easy solution

All we need is a way to see what’s wheat and what’s chaff, and to separate them as we harvest content off the Web.

In agriculture this is done with a threshing machine such as the one pictured above this essay. On the Web, so far, it’s done with ad and tracking blockers. All we need to do next is adjust our browsers and/or blockers to allow through the wheat. (Or to continue blocking everything, if that’s our preference. But I think most of us can agree that encouraging wheat production is a good thing.)

For that we need to do just one of two things:

  1. Produce only wheat on the supply side
  2. Accept wheat on the demand side

On the supply side, sites can be compliant with CHEDDAR. Don Marti, who came up with CHEDDAR, put it this way on a whiteboard at VRM Day a couple months back:

Knowing this needed an image, Craig Burton drew this while Don talked:

Advertisers can also identify wheat with a symbol of purity, to replace that awful little AdChoices thing. Perhaps something like this (only tiny):

On our side, we can have terms that say roughly this:

This is what Customer Commons is working on, along with the Kantara User Submitted Terms Working Group and other parties working to make the Net a nicer place. Here is one possible set of terms:

This says the person is permitting the second party — the site or app — to collect personal data only for its own use, to obey the person’s Do Not Track signal, and to keep the data for as long as it likes.

By now it is beyond obvious that the chaff side advertising business won’t label its ads except with fatuous nonsense like the Ad Choices button. They can’t help us here.

Well-meaning efforts such as AdBlock Plus‘s Acceptable Ads Manifesto also can’t help. While everything the Manifesto addresses (ads that are annoying, disruptive, non-transparent, rude, inappropriate and so on) are real problems, they are beside the point: tracking is what makes ads chaff rather than wheat.

As T.Rob puts it in Vendor Entitlement Run Amok, “My main issue with vendors turning us into instrumented data sources isn’t the data so much as the lack of consent.”

If we consent to wheat and block the chaff we solve a world of problems. Simple as that.

By harvesting wheat and threshing out chaff, we also encourage good advertising and re-align it with good editorial (a word I prefer to “content”). We may not like all the wheat sites serve us, at least we’ll know those ads have real value — to the sites we read, the broadcasts and podcasts we watch and listen to, and to the ad-supported services we depend on.

We can also create useful flags for those of us who welcome tracking, through consent that’s that’s not just acquiescence.

But let’s start where we can do the most good with the least effort: by threshing apart advertising’s wheat and chaff.


The original version of this post appeared on 15 August 2015. It is updated in places to connect with later posts in my Adblock War Series.