If programmatic advertising were a place, it would be a divided town. Alongside the glitz of the industry is a dark web of villainy, where gangs roam through the buy and sell side, smuggling harmful software into ads and damaging perceptions of digital advertising.
But it’s not a town, and there’s no police to shut the bad guys down. The responsibility rests with the ad tech industry alone. Criminal activity isn’t new in programmatic town, and with so many broken windows already lining the streets, penalties are no deterrent.
Malicious advertising, or malvertising, uses digital ads to infect consumer devices with malware. It’s delivered in two ways, the most prevalent being within a “legitimate ad”. The malware creator purchases a legitimate ad from an exchange, but changes the script to redirect the user to a malicious location. The other is a pop-up, which attacks the user instantly when clicked.
The brand safety issues this causes for marketers are further compounded by bots; the favoured tool of ad fraudsters.
Criminals use bots to mimic human traffic, artificially boosting ad clicks and impressions so that marketers pay for ads users don’t interact with or view. They’re especially troublesome in programmatic as automated ads are difficult to monitor. A recent Cyphort report found programmatic video ads have 73 per cent more bots than average, and this year, bots are expected to cost the industry some $7.2 bn.
In the 1980s social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling devised the “broken windows theory”. The premise was that signs of disorder, such as broken windows, indicate a neighbourhood can’t defend itself against illegal activity, and so disorder begets disorder. But if high standards are maintained and vandalism is quickly addressed, crime levels can be reduced.
Like other forms of crime, malvertising is a vicious cycle – ads that negatively impact the online experience mean fewer site users, leading to inactive publishers, less revenue for advertisers and lower marketplace quality.
An environment that falls into disrepair is a problem for every occupant of the community, so joint-effort is vital. Industry bodies including the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) have made some progress, establishing good practice principles for preventing digital crime, but many brands feel the standards aren’t enough. It’s clear that the digital ecosystem needs to band together and upgrade its defences.
Marketers should use providers that take a triple-step approach to fighting cyber crime. They can stop bad actors from entering exchanges by scoring and filtering all impressions, and carefully vetting suppliers. As an added precaution, providers should implement safeguards to block sites that support piracy or unmoderated content.
For advertisers and publishers it’s important to ensure the platforms they partner with offer complete transparency about who they are dealing with. They need robust systems to eliminate malicious and fraudulent ads by aspiring to industry benchmarks like the Pixalate Global Seller Trust Index.
Patching up the broken window of programmatic advertising is by no means a simple task, but it is achievable.
A successful clamp down will take more than a few good guys. To ensure the full potential of programmatic is realised the industry must take policing into its own hands, raise the bar on marketplace quality, and clean up this town.