Preventing Harry Tuttle

My last post, Democracy’s Soft Underbelly warned how algorithms for content distribution and advertising have been weaponized to alter public opinion.

The most disturbing aspect of the affair is there is no public evidence of the ad campaigns so there is literally nothing to talk about. When there is no public record of what ad creatives were used, there can be no debate over the of the veracity of the claims made or appropriateness of the imagery used. This recently changed as Facebook has now turned over evidence (most likely because of a warrant) to Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is looking into Russian hacking of the election.

Mueller’s investigation has received copies of the Russian-bought ads and details about the specific account information and targeting criteria the buyers used to distribute their ads, according to the (Wall Street) Journal, citing people familiar with the matter. TechCrunch

“Democracy dies in darkness” is the new Washington Post tagline. The only way to have an open civic debate about the new threat to public discourse posed by advertising on social media platforms is to review the evidence. There needs to be transparency about how advertisers are paying their way into the hearts and minds of their target audiences. With transparency comes accountability.

If you’re going to target me, I deserve to know.  All ads and ad copy must be stored, shared, and freely available to anybody in a searchable database. So if I want to see ads targeted at African-Americans in a swing state, I can just type “African-Americans aged 35-60 with a college degrees” and show me all the ads that were done. – Jason Calcanis, This Week in Startups

This database of ads, freely available to the public, would expose any questionable or unethical activity by advertisers and hopefully prevent heavy-handed regulation of this industry which has been such an important driver of economic growth.

A democratic society evolves through transparency and public debate. Advertisers that operate in the open will be forced to self-regulate themselves in full view of public opinion. Without public exposure, advertising standards and interpretation of these standards will remain behind closed doors.  In such a world, reform will come through an opaque and inevitably bureaucratic regulations that will stifle innovation.

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film  Brazil cast a satirical eye on a world  where bureaucracy and regulation have run amok. Nothing can be done without the appropriate paperwork. Harry Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro) is the terrorist heating engineer is our hero of common sense.

Have you got a 27B/6?

* It’s been pointed out that the title of this post is misleading. We do not want to “prevent” Harry Tuttle, he’s the hero and one of my favorite characters. We want to avoid being “Brazilled” – Thanks Stephen Davidson!

Democracy’s Soft Underbelly

Let me explain.

It’s now well-documented that outside forces took advantage of social media platforms to spread rumors in order to swing the 2016 presidential election. Journalists digging into the story are looking more closely at the tools used to purchase advertising that helped amplify these rumors, and are horrified by what they are discovering.

Last week Pro Publica discovered you can target “jew haters” and BuzzFeed News found that on Google you could target phrases such as “blacks ruin everything”

In the days of print, each advertisement was reviewed by multiple people from both the organization that bought the ad and the publication that ran it. Extreme care was taken to make sure the advertising complemented the editorial and the message was the right fit for the audience, not only to maximize effectiveness but also to avoid instances such as the one below.

Despite careful review, print ad placements sometimes backfire

Online advertising is a delicate balance between scale and quality. The dream is to serve a perfectly targeted ad to as many people as possible. But because of the scale, it is impossible to manually review each and every ad creative for quality and fit. In the online world, people “optimize” and let the algorithms do the work.

While at Yahoo, I met with an advertiser who wanted to learn about our behavioral targeting options. I was working with a team that was thinking about exposing detailed facets of the massive Yahoo audience that would help advertisers reach very specific segments. When I walked into the room, the client had a spreadsheet he was using to allocate his million-dollar budget. After asking a few questions about his goals, I proposed a few very targeted criteria to build his target audience. Unfortunately, he grew frustrated because the total audience was too small and we were going to have to run hundreds of queries to build up the reach he needed. He didn’t have the time to continue the exercise nor appetite to keep track of all the data to show ROI to his client. The meeting wrapped up with four very broad buckets into which he poured roughly $250k each and called it a day.

He couldn’t be bothered with the details.

This is the state of online advertising today. The tools available to reach massive scale are even more sophisticated but to do it right, with quality, requires manual oversight. Ad units can be configured to dynamically swap out ad copy and assets depending on the target audience, which can also be built algorithmically. Ad spend adjusts automatically and APIs monitor trending keywords to take early advantage of trending topics and get broad reach on the cheap.

“Programmatic Advertising” is a blanket term for techniques used to automatically generate thousands of “personalized” ads at massive scale. Because it’s automated, generating ad copy variants and target segments is inexpensive. The downside is that quality suffers if you take out the human element, leaving the robots to mind the store.

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There are many examples that show us that resulting matches still need regular review. As long as ad matching algorithms such as Google’s and Facebook’s remain black boxes, a regular human review is necessary to prevent the unexpected.

Which brings me back to what we’re learning today. Last week Facebook shared that ad placements made to “amplify divisive messages” were used to influence the 2016 elections. We are slowly uncovering the extent of information warfare that uses social media platforms to weaponize fake news. Using programmatic advertising to draw attention to and amplify these campaigns is a natural extension.

More careful review of editorial content posted to social networks is important to verify facts and prevent the spread of “fake news.” On the flip side, advertising platforms need review as well because ad targeting is also rife with repugnant audience segments automatically suggested by the algorithms. As they should, Facebook and Google have both said that more rigorous review is on the way but there will always be the tension of profit motives to discourage too rigorous a lens.

In the late-90’s, the movie Wag the Dog spins a tale of how a Washington “spin doctor” (Robert De Niro) hires top Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to engineer public opinion. The film made light of the gullible public but there was a broader, cynical message about how media (and the press) can be used to manipulate public opinion.

Today we are seeing this same scenario played out, but instead of manipulating public opinion through TV and Hollywood, public opinion is bought and sold using social networks and online advertising.

SmartNews CM with Riho Yoshioka

Television markets in Japan are much more centralized than in the United States. Therefore it’s pretty efficient to allocate marketing dollars to old school TV ads (in Japan they are called “CM” as in “commercials”) to give brand lift to online marketing.

This month SmartNews dropped a set of short TV spots featuring Riho Yoshioka, and up-and-coming actress in Japan.

1 minute of news in the morning can change your life is a rough translation of the “catch phrase” of the campaign and each clip follows Riho’s character through her day.

– getting up in the morning and checking the “newspapers” before going to work
– making productive use of her morning commute
– reading our new curated International section to practice her English
– reading the news while putting on her makeup to make her evening conversations more interesting
– checking the news in the afternoon because it’s always morning somewhere in the world – right?

Hope you like it! I’m not sure how often it’s running but would love to hear if you see them on TV in Japan.

More Good than Bad

Pepsi take note.

Heineken celebrates what brings us together in this well-timed advertisement. Instead of dancing around or romanticizing the polarization of the world around us, this brand has set up an experiment that leans into the nagging suspicion that we have within each of us what it would take to make the world a better place.

Take two people from different ends of the spectrum and bring them together over a beer. It’s schlocky in premise but Publis has stuck a timely chord and are following this up with a Facebook chatbot (if someone can find the link, please post it in the comments) to connect people from different perspectives to talk their differences out as part of Heineken’s #openyourworld campaign.

via Upworthy

Budweiser Founded by an Immigrant

They say this commercial was in development for a long time so they either had a few alternates ready to go or were just extremely prescient. Either way, Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad airing this Sunday will be sure to tap into what is on everyone’s mind in a way that only a few national brands can do when everyone is looking to grab the spotlight.

By telling the origin story of Adophus Busch’s journey from Germany to America in the mid-1800’s to found his brewery in St. Louis, Budweiser enters the national conversation with its own take on the contribution immigrants have made to this country.

See if you can spot the cameo of the famous Clydesdales who normally are front and center in their national TV commercials.

– via Advertising Age

Tables – poking fun at tech advertising

I finished Season Three of Silicon Valley, the HBO comedy series built around the mythical company Pied Piper.

One of the episodes opens with a brilliant takedown of every over-produced tech commercial you’ve ever seen.

What do you do when you have a technical product that defies simple explanations? You string together a bunch of stock video of happy people over an acoustic guitar instrumental.

SmartNews TV commercials featuring Tamori

SmartNews (where I work) is running a series of TV commercials in Japan featuring Japanese celebrity, Tamori. The tagline for the campaign is “禁断のニュースアプリ” which roughly translates as “The forbidden news application” as in it’s so addicting that you binge use it when you’ve got time alone.

News Junkie are you? Check out the US Edition.

Heineken Champions League

Heineken has long-running relationship with the UEFA Champions League tournament in Europe. Each year they run a series of advertisements running up to the contest that feature the fans and get everyone excited about the game.

This year’s installment is brilliant. The Dilemma pits an Italian fan’s love of the game against his faithfulness to his mates who get together to watch every game together on the couch.

Last year’s The Match illustrates what a ship of football freak sailors will do to get a TV signal of their favorite game.

Heineken USA reached out to expats in NYC with it’s own campaign. Work or Watch the game?

Heineken Spain gets in on the game in 2014. Will you run out on your girlfriend?

2013 featured The Negotiation where the guys have to convince their wife or girlfriends to spend almost $2000 for a pair of stadium seats, “you don’t even have to worry about the dogs chewing on them.”

There’s more where these came from. Follow Heineken on YouTube for more.