If our Paid Search Horror Stories didn’t send you screaming into the night, you might be ready for Display Horror Stories: It’s So Much Worse with Pictures! This month, we’ll look at some of the most horrifying results we’ve seen in display advertising, and tell you how to avoid them.

Programmatic can be a good investment; the real-time bidding algorithms can save money by responding instantly to fluctuations on various ad exchanges and by reducing management costs. But there are at least two dangers to programmatic, both caused by relying too much on the tools.

Last week, we confronted The Skin-Crawling Suspicion That You’re Surrounded by Remarketing Display Ads, one of the dangers of over-reliance on programmatic display advertising. This week, we gaze in terror at its meaner cousin…

The Brand-Destroying Disaster of Damaging Placements

Visa ad appears underneath inflammatory, almost certainly untrue article
Companies whose ads also appeared under this headline include Microsoft, Chevrolet, Dell, IBM, Toshiba, Honda, Sears, and JP Morgan Chase.

Programmatic algorithms don’t judge the quality or purpose of a site before placing an ad there. (In fairness, they can’t.) Which can lead to some bone-chilling placements:

  • Earlier this year, JP Morgan Chase discovered that their ads were running on more than 400,000 sites – with placements like “under a headline claiming that the actor Elijah Wood had revealed ‘the horrifying truth about the Satanic liberal perverts who run Hollywood.’ ” (As horror stories go, that headline gets maybe 1.5 out of 5 flaming skulls.)
  • In November of last year, Kellogg Co. was notified that their ads were running on a site noted for hate speech. They immediately pulled their ads, and the following month, major programmatic company AppNexus blacklisted the site from all their placements.
  • Even more horrifying, YouTube’s programmatic algorithm yielded results such as:
    • An ad for a hospice charity at the bottom of a pro-Nazi video replete with swastikas and burning crosses
    • A Sandals Resorts ad next to a video from a terrorist group promoting jihad in Kenya
    • An ad for the Mercedes E-Class sedan beneath a pro-ISIS video

Those placements should send you screaming into the night – but before you go, we recommend taking these steps to ensure your ads aren’t venturing into similarly dangerous turf.

Prevent the Brand-Destroying Disaster of Damaging Placements

As with excessive placements, human interaction and oversight are key here.

  • Start with the blacklist. Blacklisting of sites that are clearly fatal to your—or anyone’s—brand is an essential first step. Some programmatic vendors like AppNexus have blacklisted the worst sites from their possible placements, but not all. So be sure your team or agency has a blacklist that culls the major dangers.
  • Move on to the whitelist. Unfortunately, harmful sites keep popping up like Gremlins, so the danger of disastrous placements is always present. A list of sites where you want your ads to run can protect not only your brand but your advertising investment as well.

As noted above, JP Morgan Chase, whose ads were running on 400,000+ sites, investigated those placements and discovered that only 12,000 (less than 3%) of them produced any clicks. They tasked interns with visiting all 12,000 sites and determining if each site met a list of criteria for inclusion on the company’s whitelist. Only 5,000 sites made the cut—but those 5,000 have delivered the same results as the initial 400,000 sites.

Of course, if revenue is the most important goal by a significant margin, having your ads up on all kinds of sites could work out. However, if brand development and relationship management are also on your list of goals, selecting the sites where your ads should or shouldn’t run is crucial. And even if revenue is the prime or only consideration, it’s worth having your team or agency review placement reports on a regular basis to make sure your ads are running on sites where users are likely to click—and to ensure your ads aren’t associated with terrorism.

Because human intelligence and high-touch management are central to who we are, (un)Common Logic conducts regular reviews and evaluations of programmatic advertising campaigns and vendors to keep our clients from appearing on brand-damaging sites.