The problem with programmatic advertising in an age of disinformation

The media landscape is changing and media buying needs to adapt. From the handling of disinformation campaigns by social platforms, to YouTubers behaving badly, to social media advocates pushing brands to end associations with publishers or other brands which have fallen afoul, brand managers and media buyers need to stay alert to keep their messaging on-message.

Not only do brands have to worry about inappropriate placement, they’re also vulnerable to click fraud; ensuring that “you get what you paid for” may actually become more complicated.

While programmatic advertising is helpful, as one element of customer reach along the path to purchase, it requires detailed analytics and constant vigilance. AI may be the best way for people to keep up with the rapidly changing online environment, but cross-functional collaboration will be critical to a sturdy brand defense.

Ian Monaghan, product marketing manager, Adobe, believes that travel companies have an advantage, because of their advanced level of sophistication with programmatic. He tells us:

“Travel marketers were among the earliest adopters of automated, data-driven buying and are generally a savvy bunch — many brought some digital media buying and data management in-house years ago.

“One area that gets less public attention in the travel vertical — where best practices are often geared toward direct response — is the prevalence of branding campaigns that leverage a brand’s first-party data for targeting across video, TV and beyond. Brands can bring their own data to bear in a powerful way across all advertising.”

The massive stores of data on customers that travel brands have gathered over time can help target programmatic advertising more effectively, but often these are managed by department or division—for example with reservations data, loyalty data, social media interactions, CRM.

Integrating data across those departments and then applying the collective knowledge about a customers’ behavior can help ensure that the messages you send to customers are relevant and well timed. AI support in analyzing data on the performance of varied and independent channels in a single “big picture” platform can help compare the performance of the various media pathways, and guide better campaign investment.

Monaghan says:

“Beyond the obvious like measuring immediate actions after someone sees an ad — bookings, loyalty program signups, etc. — we’re seeing a shift toward more sophisticated attribution models that ensure brands know which parts of their media budget are actually working toward those goals. Cost-per-acquisition (CPA) models are only as good as their setup and the trust you have in a given technology partner and many are realizing they need to get to a place where experimental design and a statistically rigorous approach proves ROI causally.”

QuanticMind CEO Chaitanya Chandrasekar believes that machine learning will help refine ad targeting and that brands need to look at all customer interactions along the path to purchase, be they online or offline, mobile or desktop, social or search, service or advertising.

“Make sure from a prospecting point of view that it is thought through properly, engagement via mobile phone or website, and how they engage with you in that buying cycle.

“Programmatic has a lot of concerns about brand safety and fraud in general.

In the next year, a lot of the ad budget will go into safer channels, like first party displays, search and social.”


One of the general concerns when looking at the changing media landscape is the changing landscape at Facebook in particular.

While the social media giant has done an exceptionally good job of generating revenue from advertisers, news of its entanglement as a facilitator in the undermining of democracy, and the facile tool of mass targeted disinformation, is something that brands need to monitor closely.

While social platforms grapple with how to manage advertising spots in this age of disinformation, activist consumers are hunting down brands that unwittingly help finance disinformation channels.

While we researched this piece and interviewed experts in advance of Friday’s news of the indictments in the US against bad actors in the US elections, the response from Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of advertising, over the weekend sent shockwaves through a sector of social media, by seemingly off-loading responsibility for the impact of that disinformation to others, including American consumers themselves, comparing them to consumers in places like Finland, Sweden and Holland.

Whatever end of the political spectrum one might be, it’s a basic expectation that those in the marketing supply chain should be more aware of the impact of their words and more sophisticated in their crisis management. The comments further emphasize the need for travel brands – which must look after their own reputation—have to monitor platforms closely.

Disinformation and social activism are not just Facebook issues, of course. Many travel brands rely on Twitter for customer communications and the platform has its own challenges to face in managing the rapid-fire spread of negativity and the rise of bots. However, Twitter has thus far been careful in the way it has responded to questions regarding its management of this growing problem.

What does this chaos mean for travel CMOs?

While travel brands have been smart about engaging with consumers on social media, they would be well advised to have someone on the team monitoring the periphery sentiments. That is, not only following customer direct interactions and trends related to their brands, but also looking to other trending topics to analyze whether there is a tangential association which may have an unforeseen negative impact.

Another good example of this which arose this past weekend, in the wake of the tragedy of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, was the exposing of brand sponsors of the NRA by activists on social media, among them a number of travel-related companies. How these companies respond to challenges on this association, and how carefully they monitor changing sentiment, is critical and already proving tricky for some.

Disinformation will make the job more difficult on both ends of the political divide. Sentiment measured solely on number of tweets or likes becomes less meaningful as bad actors manipulate those numbers by amplifying false sentiment using bots.

Social is becoming a minefield, and the best way for brands to stay safe is to stay alert and ensure active cross-functional communications so that they can pivot quickly and respond appropriately when the integrity of their brand is questioned.

Do you belong here?

Even before this weekend’s turbulence, when we asked Chandrasekar about Facebook’s changing publisher policies and the relative sophistication of this advertising channel to put the right ads in front of the right people at the right time, he felt Google and search tools were better positioned. He says:

“Google and search tools are in a better spot because you tell Google what you’re looking for, so Google can serve the relevant results. Google has also done a phenomenal job of designing what the experience looks like for people who are searching, including with Google Flights and destination guides and with their trip planner app Google Trips.”

Ian Monaghan addressed issues of channel pollution saying:

“Improving creative and ensuring trust are big areas of focus for travel marketers.

“In terms of trust, any marketer reading the news is seeing in real-time how much context—and running with trusted partners—matters. “

While there are now smarter, more useful tools that can help travel brands evaluate their performance in this rapidly shifting media climate, we suspect that those who create a cross-functional team, dedicated to brand integrity, actively seeking out and identifying dissonance and responding quickly will be able to weather the storm better than those who turn on the program and let the algorithms do all of the heavy lifting.

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