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Stupid Media Watch: It's Not the Targeting That Failed

By Ken Magill
As if consumer-press coverage of marketing wasn’t already bad enough, even the marketing trade press sometimes gets it stupidly wrong.
Case in point: “Ad targeting fails as UK government ads appear in Jihadi YouTube videos,” said the headline on a recent piece on marketing media website
After a few reasonably straightforward opening paragraphs, the writer manages to completely miss the real story.
“Adverts for the BBC, the National Citizen Service, UK charities and other businesses have appeared before Jihadist YouTube videos, according to Newsnight, showcasing a major flaw in current targeted advertising,” began the article.
“Famous British brands and government agencies have been shown in ads before ISIS recruitment videos encouraging young men to fight a holy war in Iraq. This is despite Jihadists allegedly plotting attacks against the UK,” it continued.
“The automated advert allocation system provides video uploaders with income from ads. As a result advertisers have unwittingly contributed to the fundamental cause.”
Okay, so far so good. This development would seem to showcase a possible flaw in targeted advertising. After all, what brand would want their ads to be served with terrorist propaganda and help fund a terrorist cause?
But then the piece veers off into ignoramusville.
“Furthermore, this controversy further marks infancy in digital advertising – the fact that Jihadists are seeing UK government ads shows they need to be targeted towards viewers more accurately.”
The controversy isn’t remotely evidence that online ads need to be targeted more accurately, though they may need to be.
The only way the article’s author could know if Jihadists were seeing the ads would be if he were to sit with a Jihadist and witness the Jihadist seeing those ads.
More likely, the ads were reaching their intended targets, but in conjunction with inappropriate content.
For example, I recently was reading a blog post by a writer who is vehemently anti-gun. His site served me an ad for My guess is the blogger would be appalled his site was serving ads aimed at gun owners.
But guess what? I am a gun owner. I spent my formative years working on a cattle, hog and chicken farm. Guns have always been part of my life. 
I have recently been considering getting a handgun permit and have been doing related Internet searches to see how many hoops New York State will put me through to get one.
What is more, there is a national shortage of .22 ammunition and I have been searching on that topic, as well. For those who don’t know, .22 ammunition is low-cost, small-caliber ammunition with minimal recoil, making it perfect for recreational shooting.
The ad was perfectly targeted to me, excuse the pun, even though both the sponsor and the blogger would probably rather not be linked to one another.
As long-time readers may know, my wife is a media buyer and a big believer in behaviorally targeted online advertising.
After reading The Drum article, I asked her: “How do you make sure clients’ ads don’t sponsor objectionable content?”
“Nothing works 100 percent,” she said. “You just have to be vigilant.” She added her company maintains a list of about 1,000 sites it will not allow clients’ ads to appear on.
The issue is not that the Jihadist-video ads were targeting the wrong viewers. The issue The Drum writer missed is the ads were sponsoring objectionable content, an issue as old as sponsored content itself.
And the imperfect answer, as my wife said, is vigilance on the part of advertisers and their agencies.

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