All posts in “advertising”

Facebook and Google competed for anti-immigration ad dollars during the 2016 election


In a textbook illustration of the conflict of interest between Facebook and Google’s ostensible dedication to free speech and their ostensible espousal of progressive values, the internet giants reportedly took millions in advertising money from a major anti-immigration group at the same time as both were engaged in pro-immigration advocacy.

Bloomberg reports that both companies worked with conservative nonprofit Secure America Now, which spent millions on ads on the platforms during the 2016 election. SAN’s ads, as far as they related to immigration and refugees, were execrable scaremongering, invoking the phantom threat of Sharia law being applied worldwide — the Mona Lisa wearing a niqab, for instance.

And these weren’t merely banner ads placed on popular keywords for xenophobes. They were reportedly targeted and tested with plenty of help from Google and Facebook. The former reportedly worked directly with SAN to improve the campaign, while the latter did extensive A/B testing to see if vertical video would do better. (Head of AR/VR and former head of ads Andrew Bosworth denied the company worked directly with SAN, but confirmed it worked with SAN’s ad agency. Google has since removed the ads.)

A few short months later, in January, both companies spoke out forcefully against anti-immigration efforts, specifically the newly sworn-in President’s executive order that attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries.

Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post:

We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat… We should also keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help. That’s who we are.

And Sundar Pichai in an internal memo:

We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S….We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.

Am I the only one for whom these sentiments ring hollow considering that both companies had so recently been dancing for coins from a group whose sole purpose was to scare voters into choosing the candidate with the strong anti-immigration stance?

I understand that it is a very difficult balance, to be a platform on which free speech is valued, but to have to run a business as well. You can’t turn your nose up at something that turns your stomach — not if the price is right. So the scammy apps, miracle diet pills, and conspiracy theories all get their ad spots just like Target and Newegg.

But to take millions from a group one day, and then turn around the next to say you are deeply and fundamentally opposed to that group’s values — I’d like to say I don’t expect that kind of cynical hypocrisy, but that would be a lie. Why expect any better?

On this and other issues, there seems to be little connection with what the public head of the company says, and what the guts of the company actually do. Whether it’s on accessibility, diversity, abuse, politics, finances, transparency, or any other issue: all you can trust that these companies will do is what’s best for the bottom line.

Facebook’s ad targeting tools could be a valuable supplement to census data


Official census forms are an invaluable source for demographic data throughout the country, but for trends that occur on the scale of weeks or months rather than years, they’re a bit lacking. But a new study shows that similar data used by Facebook to target ads could help fill in that blind spot.

Sociologist Emilio Zagheni at the University of Washington looked into the possibility, in this case specifically regarding migrants in the U.S. and their movements between states. He’s previously looked at this topic using Google+ and other internet-based metrics.

Say you wanted to know whether East African migrant populations were tending toward settling in cities, suburbs or rural areas. The census process is completed every decade, which really is too long a time to observe short-term trends that follow, for example, an economic recovery or important bill.

But by using, or rather strategically misusing Facebook’s Ads Manager tool, one can find reasonably accurate and up-to-date info on, for example, Somalian migrants to the Chicago metro area versus outside the city. Facebook has already extracted all this data — why not use it?

This data is, of course, not the whole picture. You’re not finding all Somalian folks in the Chicago area, only Facebook users who choose to accurately report their country of origin and current location. Compared with the data in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, it’s not very reliable. But it’s still valuable, Zagheni argues.

“Is it better to have a large sample that is biased, or a small sample that is nonbiased?” he asks in a UW news release. “The American Community Survey is a small sample that is more representative of the underlying population; Facebook is a very large sample but not representative. The idea is that in certain contexts, the sample in the American Community Survey is too small to say something significant. In other circumstances, Facebook samples are too biased.”

“With this project we aim at getting the best of both worlds,” he continues. “By calibrating the Facebook data with the American Community Survey, we can correct for the bias and get better estimates.”

Facebook trends mirror the census data, but tend to underestimate numbers.

With reliable but scarce ground truth data and noisy but voluminous supplementary data, you can put together a more precise picture than before — as long as you’re careful to control for those biases. Data from other social networks could also be brought in to even things out.

Zagheni and his team hope to refine the ideas demonstrated in the paper so that they can be applied in places like developing countries where self-reported data like Facebook’s is easy to come by but reliable government data isn’t. A “good enough” sketch of the population and recent trends could help with things like prioritizing infrastructure investment or directing aid.

It’s unfortunate that the whole thing required the researchers to abuse the advertising system to expose the data — surely Facebook can provide better access for research purposes. I asked the company whether that was a likely possibility. Zagheni seemed to like the idea.

“I certainly hope that there will be opportunities to work directly with Facebook on this line of research in the future,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch.

The paper describing the team’s work is published in the latest issue of the journal Population and Development Review.

Featured Image: FotografiaBasica/iStock/Getty Images

In-office medical advertising startup Outcome Health reportedly misled advertisers


Some employees at Outcome Health, which provides advertising for pharmaceutical companies in screens within doctors’ offices, allegedly misled advertisers by charging them for ad placements on more video screens than the company had installed, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

The startup installs screens in doctors’ offices free of charge and then runs advertisements like those for pharmaceutical companies, charging for the ad placement. According to the report, the company seems to have inflated to advertisers the number of screens that ads ran on, allowing it to generate additional revenue. If so, this would be a huge misstep in terms of internal governance for the company, especially as advertisers (like pharmaceutical companies) look for new channels to promote their products.

The Chicago-based startup said it raised $500 million at a $5 billion pre-money valuation from Goldman Sachs and Alphabet’s investment arm CapitalG in May this year. The company started in 2006 but had not taken additional capital prior to this financing round. The screens in doctors’ offices also run content beyond advertising. Benchmark Capital partner Bill Gurley poured heavy praise on the company and its CEO, Rishi Shah, around the time of the financing round.

Outcome Health certainly isn’t the only startup in the past few years we’ve heard have major problems internally. Zenefits skirted regulatory boundaries, eventually leading to the ouster of former CEO and founder Parker Conrad and investors cutting the valuation of the company in half. There was also the massive Theranos fiasco that another Wall Street Journal report exposed, which led to heaps of lawsuits hitting the company. The Journal story on Outcome Health says it “found nothing to demonstrate top executives’ involvement in the alleged misleading of advertisers.”

We’ve reached out to Outcome Health through multiple channels for additional comment and will update the story when we hear back.

Featured Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images

ARAD helps developers get ads in their augmented reality apps


ARKit and other augmented reality tools are going to make the experience more and more popular among developers and users — but, like any new platform, there probably won’t be a sophisticated way to monetize them yet outside of paying for a download.

A team of developers from Google and Snapchat at the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 hackathon are hoping to take the learnings from that movement to help build a way to connect developers and advertisers to create ad experiences within an augmented reality environment. Sriram Bargav Karnati, Spandana Govindgari, Sai Teja Pratap, and Jaydev Ajit Kumar spent the last 24 hours at the hackathon building a way to insert an advertisement into augmented reality games with ARAD.

“When we were building the app we were thinking, hey, how do we place this ad in a non-intrusive way,” Govindgari said. “When the user clicks this ad, they should experience a whole new ad format. We were aware of it but didn’t really dig deep into it, but as we learned more we learned it’s hard to make these 3D objects and detect objects in augmented reality.”

The goal is to help developers figure out a way to make money and still get their apps into the hands of as many people as possible. ARAD has advertisers place some media assets on their platform (which, again, was built in around 24 hours), and then the tool inserts an ad that’s just usually just slightly outside of their field of vision. It’ll detect something like a water bottle, and if an advertiser has targeted an ad against a water bottle, an ad for LaCroix might pop up as a small interactive box. When a user taps on the box, they’ll see the ad for LaCroix, and then that counts as an impression for the advertiser.

Because augmented reality as a platform is so new, we’re going to see a lot of experimentation as to how advertising will work in augmented reality. Karnati and his team envision a tool where advertisers could place 3D assets on that table instead of a window that pokes into an advertising asset, though that might be something that takes a little longer than just a day to build. The idea, though, is that if someone is playing a quick game of tic-tac-toe and takes a break to look to the side, they’ll potentially see an ad — which, again, isn’t intrusive into the core experience.

That’ll also be a good tool for cross-promotion between other developers, a practice you see pretty often among game developers, Pratap said. And because augmented reality is such an immersive experience, there is probably a better chance someone will take notice of a high-quality ad that might lead them to another app (or game). For developers, that means they might also be able to charge advertisers even more because it’s a more engaged audience.

“We want it to enhance the experience for the user,” Karnati said. “Most ads which are in-app are really annoying and provide a bad user experience. This is bringing real-world, contextual things into the app, and it’s not really annoying the user. We want to answer the question from developers of ‘how do I get money?’ They can actually use something like this to pay off their bills, to support their lifestyle.”

Blocking hate speech from ads isn’t hard — tech companies just need to care more

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are facing a lot of difficult questions over their ad policies after it came to light this week that all three companies allowed advertisers to run targeted ads based on hate speech.

Though the circumstances around each case were slightly different, each one was the result of a mostly-automated system that allowed advertisers to buy ads targeted toward people likely to respond to hate speech and other offensive language. 

And, in each case, the companies claimed that it wasn’t supposed to happen. Yet the fact that media outlets were able to buy ads for these terms so easily, and in such quick succession, highlights how little these companies — who count themselves among the biggest tech giants — were doing to prevent this from happening in the first place. 

In Facebook’s case, ProPublica reporters found that they could buy ads targeting people who were likely to respond to “Jew haters” and other anti-Semitic words and phrases. Soon after, BuzzFeed reported that it was able to buy Google search ads based on racist and anti-Semitic search queries, including “Black people ruin everything.”

Then, The Daily Beast reported that it was able to buy ads on Twitter targeting people who were “likely to respond to” terms like “Nazi” and a derogatory word typically aimed at undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. 

To be clear, all three companies have policies that prohibit hate speech. Facebook and Twitter ban or suspend people who promote hate speech. Google has a similar policy in place for developers and others who use its platforms.

all three companies have policies that prohibit hate speech

Despite this, all three allowed ads to be purchased based on hate speech that would otherwise be banned from their platforms. That says far more about each company’s priorities than the policies themselves — or their apologies after fact.

In all three cases, the companies were quick to apologize and say that these cases were the exception, rather the rule. 

“We prohibit advertisers from discriminating against people based on religion and other attributes. However, there are times where content is surfaced on our platform that violates our standards,” Facebook’s Director of Product Management Rob Leathern said in a statement. (Later, the company announced that it was removing the feature that allows users’ self-reported interests to be listed in advertising categories entirely.)

Google’s SVP of Ads, Sridhar Ramaswamy, also apologized, saying: “Our goal is to prevent our keyword suggestions tool from making offensive suggestions, and to stop any offensive ads appearing.”

Similarly, a Twitter spokesperson said that the offensive terms in question “have been blacklisted for several years” and that the company is “looking into” why their filters didn’t prevent the ad campaign from running.

While these companies are right to take this seriously, it’s difficult to accept their explanations when this is a problem that could be avoided relatively easily. Blocking hate speech from advertising platforms should not be a difficult problem for these companies, which employ many of the industry’s top engineers, to solve.

the fact that this hasn’t been solved yet says more about these companies’ priorities than anything else

Facebook is working on brain-controlled computers. Google practically invented self-driving cars. Twitter’s CEO is one of the most lionized founders in tech (and one who has claimed that fixing harassment and hate speech is a top priority.)

Again, the fact that this hasn’t been solved yet says more about these companies’ priorities than anything else.

As others have pointed out, what all of these companies also have in common is that their entire business depends on a steady flow of ad revenue. Making easy-to-use tools that allow anyone to buy ads in just a few clicks is core to everything they do.  

And while none of these companies want to be seen as profiting off the vile hate speech meant to appeal to the internet’s basest trolls, it’s not difficult to see how advertising policies could face less scrutiny than, say, those applied to users or developers.

That needs to change. The time for lame excuses and half-hearted apologies is over. The biggest tech companies in the world are more than capable of fixing this. It’s time that they do.

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