In the Ad Industry, It Is What It Is . . . and Often It's a Load of Bull

Why Marketers Are in Denial, Especially About Digital Ad Fraud

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There's a depressing sense of the inevitable looming over our land, which has as its main tenet that when things happen there's not much we can do about them.

This belief is summed up succinctly in the oft-used statement: It is what it is. Because we take a fatalistic attitude about the way things play out, we quickly conclude that there's very little we can do to change things.

After all, it is what it is.

But conventional wisdom is often enunciated by people who encourage the status quo, because they are wedded to things the way they are now.

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The "it is what it is" mentality is especially prevalent in the social arena. Until Norman Lear's "All in the Family" came along, Americans were quite comfortable not discussing such topics as homosexuality, integration, menopause and breast cancer.

But once "All in the Family" made it acceptable to talk about these sensitive topics, the American people quickly took credit for their enlightened way. "We give ourselves far more credit than we've earned, and think we are far more advanced than we are," Mr. Lear wrote in his new memoir, as reported by The New York Times. "America has a hard time looking in the mirror and seeing itself truthfully."

We are quite adept at conning ourselves into believing that this new enlightened way of thinking is nothing new. We're anxious to get back to our comfortable "it is what it is" mentality, even though it's more realistic to admit that "it isn't what it is."

The advertising industry is very good at thinking what it wants to think, regardless of the way things really are. Ad people like to think consumers are in love with their brands. They like to think that people over 60 don't have any money to spend. They like to think that digital advertising is more efficient and effective. The advertising business is run on the presumption that "it is what it is." Even though it isn't.
Veteran adman Bob Hoffman has some views on the subject. Bob, who writes the "Ad Contrarian" blog and before that ran independent West Coast shop Hoffman/Lewis, believes there's precious little proof for some of adland's most firmly held beliefs.

Bob started off as a science teacher, and he learned that "knowing something is completely different than thinking

you know something." The first thing that struck him about advertising "was that we really don't seem to know anything.

"We thought we knew a lot of things. We had ideas about consumer behavior and what made good advertising. We had all of these rules and principles and philosophies, but I couldn't find any facts. ... We did things that looked and sounded like science, we used the language and tools of science. We had questionnaires and computer programs and clipboards and lab coats, but we didn't use the scientific method. … The result is, we don't really know what we think we know."

The above is from a speech he titled "The Golden Age of Bullshit," delivered at Advertising Week Europe 2014. Bob talked about how much damage bullshit is doing to the industry.

"It's damaging our civic life, it's hurting our businesses and it's harming our relationships."

He went on: "Bullshit is different from lying. Lying is willful. When you lie, you know what the truth is, but you intentionally misrepresent it. In a way, bullshit is more insidious, because people who bullshit often don't know what the truth is and don't care.

"We use it on consumers, we use it on our clients and we are now bullshitting ourselves."

One example Bob cited is the notion that people are in love with brands. There are people, he said, who believe that consumers are going to Facebook and Twitter to have conversations with each other about brands, but Bob contended that social-media users are having conversations "about everything in the universe except brands."

For my money, marketers are in the most denial when they continue to invest a bigger and bigger percentage of their ad budgets in digital despite the overwhelming evidence that there is massive fraud in the digital marketplace. Marketers are taking the attitude that "it is what it is" and chalking up such irresponsible spending to "incremental waste" much the way they view off-target ad placements.
It's gotten so out of control that ad trade associations are stepping in to save marketers from themselves.

As we reported, purging fraudulent impressions from the system would mean higher media prices and lower- but-more-accurate numbers being reported.

But why change? Fraud pumps up publishers' traffic, exchanges get paid a percentage for trading it -- the more clicks the better -- and agencies can bring those great results to clients.

Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, said he encountered some denial that fraud was occurring. "But more importantly," he added, there's "less of an urgency to move this forward."

Ad trade groups, including the ANA and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, are making noises that they want to take things into their own hands and tackle fraud.

"There will be absolutely new obligations on publishers, networks and exchanges to filter this stuff out," said IAB exec VP Mike Zanelis.

But what those "new obligations" are and the consequences that will befall fraud enablers have not been disclosed.

"Big changes are coming folks," Mr. Zanelis said. "Everyone will have obligations, everybody is going to have to make changes."

But not buying questionable traffic won't be one of those changes, so from my vantage point that hard-working adage "It is what it is" still prevails.