Digital Advertising: The Rise and Fall of Crappy Crap

Loud, obtrusive, surgically targeted, and, apparently, utterly worthless: digital ads.

A funny thing happened at Procter and Gamble in the last quarter of 2016. P&G manufactures hundreds and hundreds of consumer products, and with annual revenues of over $65 billion a year is one of the largest advertisers in the world — it spends something like $8 billion a year — and in the final quarter of last year it made a significant change. It cut $140 million from its budget for digital advertising, just in that quarter. That amounts to a reduction of $1.5 million per day. And nothing happened.

Let’s be clear about what digital advertising is. It’s the ad that pops into view in the middle of your Facebook page, or your Google search, or that suddenly obscures an article you’re reading until you can figure out how to get rid of it. Or, and this is my personal favorite, it’s the video that starts playing loudly despite the fact that you have your computer sound muted; and after you mute your sound again, the ad simply unmutes it and carries on. It’s the ad for a new refrigerator that appears on just about every page you look at, right after you send an email to a friend about looking for refrigerators.

What seems increasingly creepy to you and me — there have been many days I have felt like checking behind the bookcase, to see if there is someone in here with me, taking notes — is the foundation of the fortunes being built and endlessly augmented by Facebook, Google, Amazon and hundreds of ad buying agencies. These highly targeted ads, whose effectiveness you can measure, in real time, by counting the people who click on them (as in, make a conscious decision to learn more), have been the latest and richest sneeze in advertising for years now.

But the people who pay for this intrusive crap — not only P&G but Unilever, another consumer giant who has cut back digital advertising by more than 50%, have been wrinkling their noses at an unpleasant odor that has been emanating from the digital-ad patch. At an advertising conference back in January, chief P&G brands officer Marc Pritchard celebrated the high quality videos made possible by the digital revolution online, but then said that in addition:

“we have seen an exponential increase in, well … crap. Craft or crap? Technology enables both and all too often, the outcome has been more crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences. All of us in this room bombard consumers with thousands of ads a day, subject them to endless ad load times, interrupt them with pop-ups, and overpopulate their screens and feeds with just plain bad work. Is it any wonder ad blockers are growing 40 percent?”

That’s quite an endorsement of the thing on which you’re lavishing billions of dollars — “crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences.” Two specific things were increasingly bothering Pritchard and his peers: one, their ads were being placed by automation, and were showing up on websites that made their flesh crawl, with which they did not wish to be associated, and there didn’t seem to be any way of correcting that; and two, research was first hinting, and then confirming, that most of the clicks the ads were getting — that indicated their success, and for which they were charged money — were coming not from people but from bots, little automated apps that were manipulating data and getting into mischief but have never, ever, bought a product.

Finally, P&G acted on its suspicions and cut $140 million from its budget for the crappy crap — and nothing happened. Sales for the period increased anyway. Which told them, pretty conclusively, that the $140 million they had spent for the crappy crap the previous quarter had bought them not one thing.

Which raises these two questions among many: how good are the salespeople at Facebook, Google, et al, who have been able to cadge this much money out of companies as big and as sophisticated as P&G and Unilever, for this long, for something that did not work worth a damn; and, how long will Facebook, for example, be valued in the stock market as more valuable than Exxon, after it becomes generally accepted that one of its main products is crappy crap that doesn’t work?

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10 Responses to Digital Advertising: The Rise and Fall of Crappy Crap

  1. liz says:

    Got completely creeped out a year ago April when an ad popped up for the exact nightgown I had ordered for my mom the previous October. On the advice of my west coast relatives [what! you’re still using google?] I switched to DuckDuckGo. doesn’t track you. placed 3 orders today, for eclipse glasses, a pair of Allbirds & my favorite made-in-the-USA olive oil. not a single ad related to any of them.
    Also, I don’t use gmail & I clear my cookies every time I shut down.

  2. Tom says:

    Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for addressing one of my pet-peeves, the advertising “industry.”

    My suspicions that NONE of the advertising influences people to actually BUY anything have been confirmed by your example above. All one needs to do is open a Consumer Reports (or any like it) on whatever it is they wish to purchase and check out the pros and cons of each brand (of the same crap) to decide which to bring home.

    None of it matters – it’s all CRAP, designed to become obsolete or break before long. I lived in a house for about 10 years that came with an old refrigerator in the back basement that still worked and kept everything cold for years AFTER I sold the place (with the fridge). The same used to be the case with almost every item you can imagine.

    Advertising, like “business models” only serve the unaccountable corporations, and do little to “enrich” our lives. As a matter of fact their pollution (discarded toxic or benign crap in landfills and waterways that are unrecyclable) makes everyone’s life WORSE (by blighting the environment, not to mention all the species it outright kills, or, as some mistake plastic, discarded drugs or cosmetics for food, ingest this stuff that WE END UP CONSUMING as a result – sea salt now with micro and nano-sized plastic particles, which are also in ‘some’ fish, for example).

    Meanwhile all advertising does is interrupt (what is commonly mistaken for) “entertainment” on tv and radio, bog down on-line searching for information, and makes life miserable for all of us who have to put up with it.

  3. marieann says:

    Thank for this informative post.
    I don’t do facebook so I did not know how much advertising was going on.
    I also don’t do ads as I have an ad blocker on my computer.
    I also don’t do magazines(70% ads) and I gave up on television because of the commercials.

    I spent most of my dollars at thrift stores

    I think I must be from another planet

    • Tom Lewis says:

      When you decide to return
      to your home planet
      Please can I go with you?

    • UnhingedBecauseLucid says:

      I’m going to respect the fact that I’m on Tom’s turf. So I’ll wait ’till after he visits you on that home planet of yours, if you two don’t get hitched, consider this an invitation to visit my home planet…
      Looks a lot like yours:
      *Don’t do Facebook …
      *Have had ad blocker for years…
      *Never did magazines…
      *Dumped my TV in 2006…
      * I spend most of my dollars at low tier supermarket…
      Mehh… 4 out of 5 ain’t bad, wouldn’t you agree ?

  4. Dennis Mitchell says:

    How many notice we are viewing an ad free page? Thanks! It gives me a big clue as to your motivations. Keep up the serious work of enlightening.
    In between the “fake”fake news and the just wrong news and the crappy ads and the so called entertainment and political lies and the world is flat because all the chem trails cause the world trade towers to disappear, but really it was faked by NASA so the new world order could put floride in your coffee.

  5. Subgenius says:

    Random Thought: I have 2 young boys. Like most kids of their generation, they spent 90% of their wake time in front of a screen, preferably on one of those sites (like youtube), that have become virtually unwatchable w/out ad-block…

    Before I installed an ad-blocker on the house computer, their favorite sport when loading a page was to scan the page superfast, locate and hit systematically anything that said “close”, “skip”, “shutdown”, “disable”…click, click, click… as fast as they could…Am I the only parent seeing this?

    Is intrusive Crap-Ad unwittingly raising/training a generation of kids whose instinctual reflex upon loading a page is to extinguish ads at lightening speed?….If so, Crap-Ad may be a blessing in disguise :-)

  6. UnhingedBecauseLucid says:

    Damn you Tom !
    How dare you dispute the merit of these stock markets load bearing pillars ?
    Don’t rock the boat.
    They have found a surefooted way to extract an inordinate amount of money from the system for as little useful work as possible. We’re in economic\monopoly rent category here !
    Praise the Lord !
    Now don’t spook the sheople into frowning on this ; you risk fucking up too many retirement plans and kill too many rainbow shitting unicorns …

  7. Chris says:

    Hi Tom,

    I saw a classic the other week down here. A couple of guys were thwarted in an alleged plan to blow up a plane. The individuals were detained by the authorities. Now interestingly on the article that was describing the arrests and the alleged plot which apparently were to involve an Etihad aircraft – I may be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure I spotted an advertisement for Etihad airlines. I couldn’t believe it and I wondered if anybody was reviewing these advertisement things?