Beware programmatic advertising: Big brand ads are cropping up on illegal websites – here’s how to stop it

Andrew Goode
Follow Andrew
More than 1.6bn ad impressions appear on illegal websites in the UK every year (Source: Getty)
Advertisers have been drawn in like a moth to a flame by programmatic buying’s ability to increase ad spend return on investment and improve targeting. According to the IAB, in 2013, 28 per cent of the £1.86bn spent on display advertising in the UK was traded programmatically, and it has been forecast that the proportion will rise to 50 per cent in 2014. But while there’s no denying that the automated trading of ad space is a cost-efficient solution for advertisers, the process is plagued by transparency issues.

With real-time bidding (RTB), available ad space is entered onto a trading platform, and ads are bought and paid for in a matter of milliseconds. They are then delivered almost instantly, making it incredibly difficult for brands to track which adverts are placed where. More than 1.6bn ad impressions appear on illegal websites in the UK every year, including on unauthorised TV streaming sites. Unsuspecting brands are being aligned with illegal, copyright-infringing content, while ad budgets fund the very existence of these websites.

So how can advertisers protect themselves? A good place to start is the Infringing Websites List (IWL), developed by the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) for an initiative known as Operation Creative. The IWL is a list of copyright-infringing sites that have been through a stringent legal process and classified as acting illegally by UK authorities. In collaboration with industry bodies and tech providers, PIPCU is able to block adverts from appearing on the listed sites, and replace them with police warnings. In doing so, ad revenue is blocked and consumers are warned about the site’s illegality.

This is a step in the right direction for the digital advertising industry, and one that is proving to be effective. However, as with any thorough legal process, it takes time to inspect a site, validate that it is operating illegally and have the site added to the list. With thousands of pirate websites masquerading as legitimate publishers within RTB environments, advertisers are turning to technology to protect themselves from appearing on a far broader range of sites.

Content verification tools can identify websites as illegal based on more than 65 separate content classifications. Such tools not only scan the URL for indicators of illegal activity, but also website headers, code and page content. In doing so, it is possible to classify potential disreputable or pirate websites, and block ads from appearing on these sites in real-time.

Being able to define, identify and block sites based on these classifications enables marketers to stop their ads from appearing on any site, or beside any content, that could damage the brand’s reputation, or conflict with its business objectives. For example, if a music producer’s adverts are displayed on pirate sites, this contradicts the business model and is terrible PR.

Many agencies are now using content verification to protect their clients, which is helping to reduce the transparency issues that have been haunting digital advertising.

Programmatic buying has introduced new challenges for advertisers, but digital innovations are keeping pace with automation practices to ensure that brands are protected online. Although opacity and piracy won’t be tackled overnight, the industry, for the first time in nearly 20 years, has the ability to ensure that brands are getting exactly what they pay for. Ad budgets should no longer be going towards inappropriate or illegal placements.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles