Remarketing: a useful but risky online advertising strategy

by Wayne Beynon on November 20, 2014

As technology advances, so does the marketing and advertising industry, with companies using a myriad of automated online strategies in order to optimise their targeted advertising requirements.

Remarketing is a form of targeted advertising, and an effective way that companies can draw in more business by advertising to people that are interested in their products. More specifically, remarketing uses cookies to ‘tag’ people who have visited a company’s website, using this data to advertise to them in future on external websites, such as YouTube. Whilst this is a useful tool in the online marketer’s arsenal, and by and large works seamlessly and effectively, it is far from fool-proof. Due to the automated nature of such advertising practices, it is entirely possible that errors may occur, which may bring companies into disrepute.

Streaming sites are typically the main issue here; they tend to host vast quantities of content, which their moderators can struggle to keep up with. This means that illegal or immoral content can frequently ‘slip through the cracks,’ allowing adverts from reputable institutions to appear alongside it.

There are numerous examples of online ads for legitimate businesses appearing alongside pirated media content. With illegal sharing of media content consistently on the rise, this provides a serious headache for practitioners of remarketing. For example, Game of Thrones, HBO’s most popular series, is the most illegally downloaded programme of all time (downloaded an estimated 300,000 times per day), and adverts for reputed organisations frequently feature alongside the illegally downloaded content.

There is some debate about whether companies whose adverts appear on such sites should face government sanctions, or whether the websites themselves should face punishment. Earlier this summer, the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit attempted to combat this by replacing ads from legitimate businesses with a message informing users that the site contained illegal content and asking them to leave the page.

With the Prime Minister’s intellectual property advisor, Mike Weatherley MP, having previously advocated official sanctions against companies who advertise on illegal websites, it seems possible that this could soon become a part of the government’s plans for tackling such content.

Another more worrying trend is the appearance of remarketed ads alongside disturbing jihadist propaganda videos uploaded to legitimate websites, including YouTube, by the likes of ISIS.

Earlier this summer, there was a furore when adverts for the National Citizen Service, a government department, appeared before propaganda videos on YouTube which exist to radicalise young Muslims. The system for the division of advertising revenue outlined by the site means that taxpayer money may have inadvertently gone to extremist religious groups such as ISIS because of this oversight.

Another streaming site, DailyMotion, had been hosting jihadist content alongside adverts for international corporations, but removed the content when the issue was uncovered by BBC’s Newsnight.

Many of the ads that are shown prior to YouTube videos are generated using these methods, with advertising revenue split between YouTube, the advertisers, and the creators of the content.

On top of the headache remarketing problems can cause for companies, consumers also have their concerns too, not just about these errors, but the practice in general. The fact that, like all targeted advertising, the collection of consumer data is necessary for remarketing to work, means that there are ethical concerns.

In recent years the myth of Internet anonymity has been completely debunked, with users now well aware that their browsing information is farmed by many institutions including social media sites, government agencies, and, in this case, advertisers. Public reaction to the phenomenon is mixed, but falls largely on the negative end of the spectrum. On the one hand, users argue that targeted advertising is not necessarily a bad thing; alerting Internet users to goods, services, and pieces of web content that are of interest to them, makes things easier for consumers and businesses alike. On the other hand, users argue that this practice is a shameless breach of privacy, and that it’s immoral for businesses to collect users’ browsing data for their own commercial gain.

The government will continue to fund the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit until 2015 at least, meaning that they are committed to tackling the issue of advertising on illegal websites.  Whether or not they’ll continue issuing warnings on the sites as they are now, or punishing either the sites themselves, or advertisers who insist on placing ads on them, remains to be seen.

Wayne Beynon is a media and IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law

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