When news that a sample of Mercedes-Benz's adverts was more widely viewed by bots than humans breaks in the same week that an audit company reveals four in five British advertisers have no idea how many of their advert impressions are fraudulent, you know an industry is in some sort of trouble.
"The market has been has been relentlessly pursuing success and performance and in so doing has lost sight of where adverts actually appear," said Duncan Trigg, chief executive of Project Sunblock, an auditing firm for advertisers and the authors of the aforementioned report.
"Brand safety" has long been important for Project Sunblock's clients, with regular investigations run to check whether adverts are displayed alongside undesirable editorial content such as pornographic or racist material. But since the rise of programmatic advertising in 2009, in which space is bid for based on which demographics a company wishes to target, bots have become an increasing concern.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) surveyed enterprise marketers last November, and found that 85% were using programmatic advertising. Of those who did half were trying to buy adverts more efficiently, with slightly more trying to target more effectively, and only 16% motivated by cost-cutting. Over the next two years 91% of advertisers are expected to take up programmatic advertising, despite anxieties about the practice.
Ascertaining who is actually viewing the campaigns is a growing trend for the auditors. Adverts appearing below the fold of a web page are much less likely to be seen than those visible when the page opens. But more problematic than that is the rise of botnets in directing fraudulent traffic, with the IAB claiming that as much as a third of online traffic for adverts is robotic rather than human.
"Botnets are already surprisingly sophisticated and will only become more potent in time," said Andrew Goode, chief operating officer of Project Sunblock. "There are many pieces of malware used to infect PCs which are used to create fake traffic and then sold on to publishers through ad exchanges, and some of the bots are almost indestructible."