Mercedes falls victim to internet ‘robot’ ad scam

Pretty well everything in the Mercedes-Benz garden is lovely at the moment with its new sexier-looking cars hoovering up sales and its Grand Prix team dominating the 2014 championship.

But the company seems to have fallen foul of an internet scam with parts of it’s latest online campaign through its US agency, Omnicom’s Merkley & Partners, being seen by more robots (automated computer programmes) than people.

seach-botAccording to the Financial Times, in a sample of 365,000 ad impressions brokered by intermediary Rocket Fuel over three weeks, an investigation by ad fraud specialist Telemetry found that 57 per cent were viewed by such ‘bots’ rather than real people.

Rocket Fuel says the figures are not typical and has refunded Mercedes for the suspect impressions. The company buys ad inventory from trading exchanges which are plugged in to thousands of publishers.

None of this will come as a great surprise to sceptics who have long doubted the mind-boggling numbers supposedly delivered by some internet campaigns and, indeed, websites. It also shows the perils of buying media as a commodity through supposedly infallible ad exchanges.

Andrew Goode, COO of Project Sunblock, adds:

“This is a unfortunate case for Mercedes, but it is far from alone in its fight against the advertising botnets. Complex computer programmes are preying on big advertising budgets as marketers flock online in order to increase brand visibility. So much so, that industry bodies now predict that at least a third of all online traffic is generated by robots.

“The issue is that there is a real lack of visibility and transparency around where digital ads end up once they’re fed into industry ad exchanges. These ad exchanges deal with the buy and sell of ad impressions, but they themselves have no commitment or ability to identify and weed out fraudulent publishers, and so the robots go on undetected.

“Nearly four in five (78 per cent) UK advertisers have no insight into how many of their ad impressions could be fraudulent, despite relatively broad awareness of the issue of bot traffic. This needs to change if the industry is to turn the tables on the botnets. The onus is on the brands themselves to act, not their advertising agencies or ad exchanges.”

Update 28/5/14

Rocket Fuel says:

Bots are a real problem, but less so than sensational headlines on top of non-news. A recent Financial Times article (see above) cites Mercedes-Benz as estimating that fewer than 6% of an online advertising campaign served by Rocket Fuel were labeled as questionable, yet the headline suggests an apocalypse of digital advertising. Between Rocket Fuel’s bot-screening technology and our accredited partners’ (in this case, Integral Ad Science) real-time screening, Rocket Fuel found quality ad inventory to serve in place of the 6% of Mercedes ads identified as questionable, and delivered those impressions to humans before any bills were even sent.

Rocket Fuel takes an aggressive posture to screen bots out of the ad space in the over 200 countries worldwide where we serve our customers’ ads. We reject approximately 40% of all ad space daily due to its failure to pass our own bot and brand-safety screens. In February of 2014, when the Financial Times suggests that we delivered approximately 200,000 impressions to bots, we rejected 497,827,451,520 impressions while evaluating approximately 1.1 trillion impressions as candidates for our customers’ ads. Put another way, if every ad the Financial Times suggests we delivered were the size of a 1″x1″ postage stamp, and those ads were laid down side by side, they would cover 49% of one standard doubles’ tennis court. By contrast, we rejected 1,231,173 tennis courts’ worth of questionable ad space.

There is an ongoing arms race between Rocket Fuel and scammers who create fake websites and bot traffic in an attempt to fool advertisers into spending money to “advertise” to these bots who can appear human if not studied carefully. We want to help advertisers make sure they’re getting real results from Rocket Fuel and their other partners, and to this end we have been providing free tools for years to help them run clean A/B tests to measure the incremental value Rocket Fuel adds to their advertising. In addition, two weeks ago we announced that we will release a free bot-detection tool that will further help advertisers keep bots out of their results.

As we help advertisers achieve new levels of success in digital marketing, they spend more with Rocket Fuel. This, in turn, has powered our growth as Deloitte’s #1 fastest-growing technology company in North America, and is further evidenced by our industry-leading success-story program which features 45 branded customer testimonials.

As you would. Bring back old-time media buyers who do their business in the Dog and Duck in Soho, I say.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.