An easy fix for a broken advertising system

Doc Searls
6 min readOct 12, 2017


Want to make your ads #brandsafe?

The answer is easy: sponsor what flatters your brand. That’s what you do when you place an ad inside a publication, a TV show, a podcast, and do so for the worth of those media.

And fire #adtech: tracking-based advertising (also euphemistically called “relevant,” “interactive” and “interest-based”).

That shit really isn’t advertising, even though that’s how it looks and that’s what we call it. It’s really direct marketing.

Blurring the distinction between those two kinds of advertising—the sponsoring kind we’ve had since forever and the direct marketing kind that chases tracked eyeballs—is the adjective “programmatic.” Because you can do either kind of advertising programmatically.

Thanks to this blur, AdAge makes an understandable mistake in a piece titled ANA pulls an ad that mistakenly landed on Breitbart via programmatic buy, by E.J. Schultz. In fact the placement wasn’t a mistake: the system worked in exactly the way it was meant to. What made it look like a mistake was seeing an adtech placement through a sponsorship lens.

See, the ANA’s buy was programmed to place ads in front of readers who share a number of characteristics; and, because those characteristics are learned mostly by tracking people, at least one of those tracked people showed up at Breitbart, where the ad was placed there specifically for them. Again, by design: adtech design; not sponsorship design.

In a brilliant post unpacking how all this works, Don Marti sources Walt Mossberg’s description of how blatantly fucky the adtech system is for everybody:

[W]e were seated next to the head of this advertising company, who said to me something like, “Well, I really always liked AllThingsD and in your first week I think Recode’s produced some really interesting stuff.” And I said, “Great, so you’re going to advertise there, right? Or place ads there.” And he said, “Well, let me just tell you the truth. We’re going to place ads there for a little bit, we’re going to drop cookies, we’re going to figure out who your readers are, we’re going to find out what other websites they go to that are way cheaper than your website and then we’re gonna pull our ads from your website and move them there.”

Only programmatic adtech makes this possible, and it’s essential to know it’s not advertising as we used to know it, but only looks like it. As with magic, adtech is pure misdirection.

Let’s examine the differences between advertising (by which I mean the kind that sponsors something) and adtech.

In the old advertising world, advertising wasn’t personal. It was aimed at populations defined by the media people read, watched or listened to. Advertisers sponsored those media directly, because they wanted to reach the kinds of readers, viewers and listeners who liked particular papers, magazines, radio and TV stations, networks and programs.

Sponsor is what they did, and that’s what Walt Mossberg heard that Recode wasn’t going to get from programmatic adtech — straight from the magician’s mouth.

With programmatic adtech, ads follow eyeballs. Those eyeballs are tracked like animals by beacons placed in people’s apps and browsers. In the online print world, readers are tagged with spyware in their browsers or apps and tracked like animals. Personal data and metadata about those readers are harvested by the spyware and munched by machines, which place ads against profiles of reader types, no matter where they show up.

The result on the receiving end looks like old-fashioned advertising, but it’s really direct response marketing (née direct mail, aka junk mail), which has always wanted to get personal, has always looked for an immediate personal response, and has always excused massive negative externalities, such as the simple fact that people hate it.

But nearly everybody covering the industry falls for it. So does the industry itself. As I wrote in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”

And the misdirection works.

Jennifer (@marketeer2u) fell for it when she tweeted “.@ANAmarketers NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! Your ads are running on Breitbart. Fix it. @slpng_giants.” So does Sleeping Giants in their campaign against “racist and sexist media,” because they think the problem lies with advertisers. But the advertiser has little or no control, as long as they distribute ads through eyeball-chasing adtech.

But they do have control if they go back to sponsoring publications directly. As I suggest in Let’s get some things straight about publishing and advertising, we need a word, a symbol or a hashtag that says an ad is not tracking-based adtech. There I suggest #SafeAd.

Programmatic at best can only blacklist a site like Breitbart, and program that blacklist into one or more of the thousands of systems that might aim an ad (and many may be in the supply chain between advertiser, agency and publication). But that’s not going to fix the problem. Advertisers need to fire adtech. Simple as that. This is what AdAge, the ANA, Sleeping Giants and everybody else who wants to save advertising’s ass should be urging.

Adtech is a cancer on advertisers, publishers, and everybody it tracks.

We already have one form of chemo in ad blocking. According to PageFair’s 2017 Adblock Report, at least 11% of the world’s population is now blocking ads on at least 615 million devices. According to GlobalWebIndex, 37% of all mobile users, worldwide, were blocking ads by January of 2016, and another 42% would like to. With more than 4.77 billion mobile phone users in the world by 2017, that means more than 1.7 billion people are blocking ads already: a sum exceeding the population of the Western Hemisphere.

This easily amounts to the biggest boycott in human history. Yet a measure of the industry’s cluelessness is that it treats ad blocking as a problem rather than as a clear and legitimate signal of demand by the marketplace for something better. Which they had in plain old-fashioned media-sponsoring brand advertising, before they let their brains get eaten by adtech.

It’s no coincidence that ad blocking took off in 2012–13, when the advertising and publishing businesses together gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was never more than a polite request for what in the offline world we call good manners. (Think about it: what customer visiting a store would want to leave with a tracking beacon stuck to their butt like a wood tick, reporting their activities back to parties unknown, just so they can get a better “advertising experience” or whatever?) Its also no coincidence that the rise in ad blocking also traced the rise in retargeting by adtech: an obvious reveal that one is being followed. (Woman Stalked Across Eight Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement is a typically right-on Onion story.)

And don’t fall for the story that tracking-based ads are “acceptable” as long as they aren’t annoying.” That’s just more misdirection.

From Brands need to fire adtech:

It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and a vector for malware. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.

Oh, and a $trillion or so has been spent so far on adtech without one single familiar brand being made by it. Really. Try naming one.

Yet plenty of brands have been harmed by it. For example, the ANA itself in the case AdAge reports.

The advertising business can’t save itself. It needs help from the outside. Namely, the very people it targets personally, and that hate it.

That’s why I co-founded Customer Commons, and why we’re working on terms any one of us can assert that are friendly to advertisers and publishers. The first, called #NoStalking, says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.” Nothing could be simpler, more do-able or more far-reaching.

We’ll also need this fix before the GDPR, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, comes into effect next May, with potentially enormous fines for spying on EU citizens, no matter where those citizens’ eyeballs may be.

I explain exactly what we need to do here. I’m hoping friends old and new in the publishing and advertising businesses (to both of which I’ve devoted much of my life) will join us next week at VRM Day and IIW, where we’ll be working on solving exactly this problem.

Also on the table will be what Don Marti calls for. “Measure the tracking-protected audience,” he says. “You can’t sell advertising without data on who the audience is. Much of that data will have to come from the tracking-protected audience. When quality sites share tracking protection data with advertisers, that helps expose the adfraud that intermediaries have no incentive to track down.”

An earlier version of this post was published at on October 12, 2017.



Doc Searls

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.