The Problem with Programmatic

Programmatic advertising has implications which run deeper than just selling us things we don't want...
29 April 2022

Interview with 

Jeff Chester, Center for Digital Democracy


Social media advertising


Digital ads are set to exceed 60% of global ad spend in 2022. Our habits and behaviours are shifting away from our TVs, and towards devices constantly connected to the internet, creating opportunities for companies to use our data to personalise ads in ways never seen before. This is called programmatic advertising, and I spoke with Jeff Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington DC, to find out how this form of advertising works and what it means for our future relationships with the companies trying to sell us things...

Jeff - What people in the advertising business realised around 2009/2010, that the same super fast computers used to buy and sell shares of stocks on stock exchanges, that were able to make decisions in milliseconds and compile huge amounts of data, could also be deployed to buy and sell people to deliver targeted ads, and that the online environment was the perfect place to allow this very powerful set of technologies and could be used to deliver the exact ad to the person based on all the information an advertiser had access to. Initially, everybody was put up for auction, advertisers would bid to place an ad in front of you, James, because you fit the right demographics, they knew that you had bought the product previously, or you were a suitable target. Over time it's evolved, so, in addition to buying and selling people, which is really what programmatic advertising is about, the data driven process based on your profile, based on all the analysis that they're able to do in real time. What's key here is that this system of data surveillance follows you from site to site, application, to application and device to device. And it's able, increasingly now, to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to make far ranging predictions about how you will behave. So, for example, if you're not responding to the ad for the breakfast cereal in the right way, that they hope that you will do, they can change the message.

James - The direction of travel here is digital ads are now accounting for over half of all the ads we see, and that's just gonna go up. And of course, there are a lot of people I know who are worried about the potential implications of their data being in the hands of technology companies, but then there are other people who say, "So, I'm getting shown ads that are targeted to what I'm interested in." We've covered over the course of the show so far that this might mean that we're starting to see less creative and emotionally engaging ads, but what would you say to people who might initially quite like the idea of targeted advertising when they first hear it?

Jeff - What does this mean for our democratic futures when a handful of powerful companies and ultimately political groups are able to gain almost second by second access to whatever you do. It's not just what you do online because online is now integrated with our so-called offline experience. For example, when you go into the grocery store supermarket and you use a loyalty card, that's also connected to your online profile. They know everything about you. What we've already seen with programmatic advertising is unprecedented manipulation in our political process, from Cambridge Analytica to Brexit, to Russian disinformation in the US presidential campaign; the list goes on. Programmatic advertising is playing a role, undermining democracies, hurting consumers, and can do much more because, right now, there really are, certainly in the United States, no limits to how programmatic advertising can operate.

James - Jeff, you work for an organisation called the CDD, the Center for Digital Democracy. What is that?

Jeff - CDD was basically set up to ensure that the growth of the internet would evolve in ways that would reflect democratic values and the public interest. From the very beginning of the commercial internet era, around 1993/94, which is when we started our work here in Washington DC, we understood that advertising and the data collected for targeted advertising was the DNA of the internet, and that commercial imperatives would shape how the internet evolved. So, we started examining it and investigating what was going on with the internet. We're actually responsible for the only US online privacy war there is, which unfortunately just covers children, and it was tough for us to get that through. But we have been investigating how Facebook, Google and Amazon have operated from the very beginning. And we try to sound the alarm and get regulators to look at it.

James - Let's talk about some of the implications of this sort of data harvesting on a grand scale. And we've spoken, I suppose, quite broadly about it, but maybe we can talk more about how a specific demographic of people might have been affected and the CDD's report into big food, big data, and the child obesity crisis. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Jeff - The food and beverage companies have been at the forefront of online advertising, really since the beginning of the commercial internet in the 1990s. Fast food companies are using all their data resources to target young people and other vulnerable groups to buy their products, regardless of the health consequences. So, whether it's the cereal box that triggers an interactive game on your mobile phone, or you're seeing the brand on billboards as you play the video game, the big food and beverage companies are using the most powerful data tools to target you and children to buy what are basically products that could kill you. We need to have stronger rules limiting how they can collect data and how they can use it. It's by no means an easy feat. The ads are being tested using the latest techniques to peer into our minds to figure out implant these messages within our kind of emotional brains. And I wish I was making this up because it sounds science fiction.

James - We had someone as part of our show get the test, run on them, the facial mapping software, this is right on topic.

Jeff - Generating advertising based on these predictions about our interests, our likes, our vulnerabilities, and making sure that ads surround us wherever we go. We have to have some rules that regulate how these ads in the 21st century are constructed because, increasingly, they're personalised, it's an ad that follows us and gets to learn about us in order, frankly, to shape our behaviour and reactions.

Julia - Jeff Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy, with some important reminders of how serious it is that companies are allowed to store and use information about us.

James - Absolutely. And Jeff mentioned to me that he felt that the UK was actually at the forefront of holding big tech to account, thanks to measures like the online safety bill, but it's a conversation we need to keep having and keep reviewing, given the rapidly changing nature of the digital landscape.

Julia - Definitely agree.

James - Since researching this topic, I've become fixated by adbreaks, by the way, even the naff ones. It's one of those where I really want to look away and just can't because I want to know what emotion they're trying to get me to feel, or I'm getting a particular promotion for this brand of soap or that kind of deodorant.

Julia - Maybe big tech are trying to tell you something, James?

James - Maybe. Sorry, in advance, to anyone else who I've opened this can of worms for.


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