A longstanding challenge with regard to websites that profit from pirated media, counterfeit products, and/or malware is the frequent placement of major brand advertising on the pages of those sites. Musician David Lowery’s activist website The Trichordist has published lists of major advertisers whose banner ads have appeared on various pirate sites, seeking to hold advertisers accountable for supporting exploitation of musical artists. This kind of activism has drawn both public and industry attention to the problem. In its most basic form, the principle is that Legit Entity A should not benefit from a site that derives its traffic by exploiting Legit Entity B. That probably sounds reasonable to most people, including most advertisers themselves, but what to do about it is another matter — until now.
This morning, the advertising industry announced a new, voluntary initiative that helps advertisers better understand the nature of sites on which their ads may be placed. The initiative produced by the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) is called the Brand Integrity Program Against Piracy and it was developed in collaboration with the three major advertising associations — the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
For context, it is generally true that advertisers do not want their ads placed on sites dedicated to illegal or harmful trade. Companies spend billions of dollars and thousands of hours developing, cultivating, and managing their brands; and even as brands evolve and experiment to keep up with a changing consumer market, very few brand managers will actively choose to be associated with a site engaged in illegal or exploitative commerce. Chrysler and Target really don’t want their ads next to an ad for a questionable “dating service” or a link to a media player that will probably load spyware onto your computer. But unlike other media, ad buying on the Internet is not all directly placed by the advertiser. When you see an ad on a major site, it was selected and specifically paid for, like when Nissan buys a week of placement all over CNN.com. But other ads scattered around the Web are what are called “remnants,” and these are placed somewhat blindly through low-cost, generic buys with various ad services. It’s a bit confusing, but the blind aspect of these media buys has been one reason the advertising community has responded to the content industry that they only unintentionally advertise on sites hosting infringing content. In fact, the aforementioned Target makes a good example. As Target now offers a movie streaming service, it would stand to reason that the company does not purposely choose to advertise on a site dedicated to movie piracy.
The whole problem won’t be solved with a single program, but thanks to demand by advertisers themselves, TAG today announced a new technology solution that enables advertisers to view site analysis based on assessed risk to their brands. From the press release issued by TAG:
“Under the program, TAG will work with a small number of independent third-party validators, including Ernst & Young and Stroz Friedberg, to certify advertising technology companies as Digital Advertising Assurance Providers (DAAPs). To be validated as a DAAP, companies must show they can provide other advertising companies with tools to limit their exposure to undesirable websites or other properties by effectively meeting one or more criteria.”
The initiative is designed to identify what TAG calls Ad Risk Entities (AREs), meaning sites that have a high probability of facilitating illegal activity, including dissemination of unauthorized intellectual property. Through voluntary application of these tools by the advertising industry, the expectation is that online providers who want to maintain relationships with quality advertisers will make the effort to become Digital Advertising Assurance Providers (DAAPs). A validated DAAP would have to take steps–or show that it already takes steps–to mitigate advertiser exposure to risk according to five criteria designed to provide safeguards and assurances that their brands are not inadvertently supporting illicit activity. These criteria include identifying properties disseminating infringing material, enabling advertisers to restrict ad placements, preventing fraudulent transactions, providing tools to monitor ad placements, and eliminating payments to undesirable entities. It is the first initiative of its kind in which the advertisers who support most websites seek to collaborate with providers to keep legitimate trade from supporting black-market trade.
Not only is this effort a step forward in terms of putting advertisers in control of their placements, providing them better stewardship of their brands; but it also demands greater accountability of advertisers by rights holders and other victims of exploitative sites. In short, the “I didn’t know” defense weakens considerably with the deployment of these new tools, and since this effort comes from the advertising community, it’s fair to assume they’re generally not looking to hide behind that excuse. Still, the initiative only works if enough parties participate, so we can certainly expect The Trichordist and similar watchdogs to continue to look out for major brand advertising on infringing sites. But on the whole, I expect advertisers do hope to shun these associations because their ad value is being effectively hijacked by these types of sites. There’s a reason most torrent and cyberlocker sites are so often supported by very sleazy ads: because it’s a very sleazy business.