The tweet that started it all was innocuous enough. A disgruntled Twitter user who was trying to book train tickets using the IRCTC app posted screenshots of obscene ads he had been seeing on its platform.
Obscene and vulgar ads are very frequently appearing on the IRCTC ticket booking app. This is very embarrassing and irritating @RailMinIndia @IRCTCofficial @PiyushGoyalOffc kindly look into. pic.twitter.com/nb3BmbztUt— Anand Kumar (@anandk2012) May 29, 2019
IRCTC wasted no time in responding to his concern, pointing out that the ticket booking platform uses a tool called ADX to serve ads. They further explained that this tool showed a user ads based on cookies - that track a user's web browsing behaviour to show him relevant ads.
The tool that the IRCTC official referred to is called Ad Exchange (ADX for short) and Google defines it as a real-time marketplace for buying and selling advertising in partnership with the Google Display Network. Essentially, ADX sells the ads and the Google Display Network provides brands with a place to display them. Google Display Network uses targeting options to show potential customers the right message at the right place, at the right time - which is what programmatic advertising focuses on. Programmatic advertising refers to buying digital ad space using computers and data to decide which ads to buy and which spaces to place them in.
Google's Display Network allows advertisers to target audiences with specific interests, across ADX publisher sites that comply with Google Ads guidelines. A simple search for Google's Display Network will take advertisers to a page that explains the auction process for buying ad space. When a publisher (e.g. a news site) offers inventory (ad space) to ADX, the first step that Google takes is to run its own auction and compose the best ad unit to fit the space that the publisher has offered. The next step is that Google Ads calculates the appropriate Ad Exchange bid for the ad unit. Bids that don't meet publisher controls are generally ignored. ADX will then take all the eligible bids and run an auction.
These auctions happen on the basis of real-time bidding. Traditionally, when a brand bought media, they specialised in buying and selling blocks of impressions. Real-time bidding allows marketers in an auction environment to buy and sell the space for different ads that will eventually be shown to different audiences. This is what constitutes programmatic advertising and it is the process that is followed for digital media buying.
Programmatic advertising allows brands to buy space simultaneously across thousands of websites with specific focus on the groups a brand wants to target. When the ad shows up, programmatic advertising also helps track consumer response to ads - this allows a marketer to make real-time changes to his campaign.
However, programmatic advertising can also give rise to ad fraud. If an ad unit purchased is on an unsafe site (e.g. a site that hosts pornographic content) or if the ad itself contains inappropriate content and ends up on a genuine publishing platform that has organic traffic, then in both cases, ad fraud puts brand reputation at risk.
At an event we attended, Moneka Khurana, the country head of the Mobile Marketing Association, emphasised that the top five sectors that are affected by ad fraud in India are e-commerce, travel, finance, gaming, and food. Khurana also mentioned that 22 per cent of mobile ad spends is subject to ad fraud. Furthermore, she pointed out that 50 per cent of marketers are using third-party tools to fight ad fraud and more said, they were inclined to do the same in the future.
In IRCTC's case, the ads in question appeared on a safe, verified platform where real users are performing transactions. The problem was that the ads themselves showcased problematic content. In this case, IRCTC was able to absolve itself of responsibility by pointing out that ADX shows users ads based on user behaviour. So how safe is a brand really?
We spoke to Kushal Sanghvi, the business head at Reliance Entertainment and Digital to understand the situation better. He informed us that his company works with many publishers such as Facebook and Twitter to ensure that the ads end up in the right places. He pointed out that if an ad appears in the wrong place or if the wrong ad appears on a publishing platform, they have mechanisms in place to take it down immediately.
He also went on to say that Twitter is a fast medium and is ripe for misuse. "There is more bad than good on the platform and brands need to be doubly sure when they are using it to advertise. In a situation like this, as a brand owner, you need to take steps to mitigate the damage," he told us.
He mentioned that IRCTC is not necessarily as agile as a privately owned company and that if it were a private company, they may have been faster in taking action to ensure that such ads don't appear on the platform.
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"It's in extremely poor taste and this could've easily been nipped in the bud. Instead, it went viral and got so much traction on social media. Private companies closely monitor what is being said about the brand every second with social listening tools and it's possible that IRCTC doesn't necessarily possess that level of sophistication, in terms of technology, to process what happened and reply accordingly," Sanghvi signs off.
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