It was the mother of all ad frauds. A group of Russians working with the Kremlin and desperate to have anyone elected but Hillary Clinton set up a pseudo- ad agency with a budget of $1.25 million a month and bought ads on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, measuring viewability, comments, and engagement. The ads were paid for with fake Paypal accounts. In addition to their advertising campaigns, the group ran a cross-channel marketing campaign for Trump, staging rallies and counter-rallies and paying people to participate.
And although Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a point of saying the results of the election weren’t swayed by all the bots and ads and phony grass roots efforts, how can we be sure?
Indeed, there are more ways to sway an election than just stuffing a ballot box. Thinking the election wasn’t influenced ignores the power of advertising to create brands. These Russians could sway the election by organizing massive rallies and making Trump appear more popular than he really was. That would create a bandwagon effect — something ad campaigns try to achieve all time.
As a result of this highly successful campaign, over a hundred “unwitting” Americans participated in the Russian government’s effort to interfere in our elections, and our major social platforms were besmirched as they were ringing up the ad revenues. Until recently, Mark Zuckerberg did not grok the extend of Facebook’s complicity.
There are lessons for the online advertising industry in all this. We have all been busy reaching for scale. But we haven’t put sufficient controls on the messages we are sending, and we haven’t devoted enough time or effort to combatting ad fraud. News outlets desperate for ad revenues in a changing market were willing to run ads that annoyed consumers. Brands bought ads in places they should never have appeared.
What will be the result of all this, beyond indicting 13 Russians who will probably never be extradited? We suspect it will be a massive loss of trust in digital platforms on the part of consumers. And with it, an equally massive pullback from social media advertising on the part of brands.
We were long overdue for this correction. It’s another consequence of mishandling customer trust, as the use of ad blockers is. Our industry could use a giant dose of quality.
In the consumer advertising business, just as in the public opinion business, lost trust is difficult to regain. We’d have been better off sacrificing scale to quality and using better targeting techniques, just as the social platforms would have been better off scrutinizing their advertisers more carefully..