As Captain Jack Sparrow said in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, "Me? I'm dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It's the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they're going to do something incredibly... stupid."
His quote brings to mind the debate regarding supporting peer-to-peer file sharing sites with advertising. It's not cool to be a pirate. Nor is it cool to support one economically, yet inadvertently, many respectable brands do. This problem continues to plague the entertainment industry, resulting in losses of $58 billion, according to the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI).
By its nature, the current state of digital technology is complicit in that number. Networks and exchanges are not fully capable of automatically detecting sites that host peer-to-peer content sharing today. So yes, digital advertising, despite all good, honest intentions, has become a source of revenue for torrent sites. And consequently, good, honest brands have found themselves, through networks and exchanges, effectively funding peer-to-peer file sharing. Next to adult content, it is arguably the biggest issue in brand safety online. In an industry that focuses on automation for scalability, this exposure is an unfortunate consequence.
There is a solution. The solution has to fit the problem, however, and the problem is automated. The solution must also be automated. That means that all the committees and conferences in the world aren't going to put a dent in this issue. Universal and Disney have very likely sent a "cease and desist" to every company they've seen attached to illegal downloads, but this approach is not scalable, and it's not proactive. How can brands tackle such a vast problem without compromising their advertising objectives? As RTB continues to grow and scale, it's increasingly difficult to appeal to a brand's goodwill alone to stop appearing on torrent sites. It's more than likely that these brand marketers have no idea their ads are supporting these sites, and they're probably horrified when they learn of the placements -- much like Canada's Department of Finance was horrified to find banner ads for its Economic Action Plan appearing on The Pirate Bay.
Here are three ways to address the problem:
Continue raising awareness
On the New York subway system, passengers are urged to report suspicious packages through a campaign called "If you see something, say something." In the same spirit, we can isolate pirate sites with good citizenship. If you notice a reputable brand's ad on a torrent site, raise a flag. Instances of file sharing sites on advertising networks should continue to be reported and compiled into an automated watch list. It's our belief that the industry continues to band together for this effort, perhaps under the guidance of an established industry-wide organization. This suppression list of illegal sites should be centralized and accessible to all networks.
Adopt a proactive, content-based brand protection solution
If brands enter into RTB exchanges with more automated pre-bid data about the content with which they want to be associated and the content they choose to both target and avoid, the risk of supporting piracy is greatly reduced. Brands need to ensure, before bidding begins, that every "i" has been dotted and every "t" crossed -- that every safeguard available has been leveraged. In doing this and making certain that ads appear on only the highest quality and most relevant sites, this will not only mean better brand safety, but generally better results, as well.
Customize by brand and product
In our experience, there are so many ads on file sharing pages that an automated rating system is essential. Since these pages are so blindly focused on ad-based revenue, they rarely focus on the integrity of page design. Rather, they cram as many ads as possible onto a single page to get as many impressions and clicks as possible. In addition to driving down performance, this can also lead to other problems, such as ad collision. Higher quality publishers are more particular about ad format and placement since their content needs to take center stage. While they too need to drive revenue from their ads, better publishers will attempt to achieve a balance, giving their advertisers the spotlight they deserve without pulling too much attention away from "king content." Therefore, focusing on content quality, viewability, and high-value inventory should inherently help advertisers identify and avoid piracy sites on networks and exchanges.
The pirates are out there, but they know who they are, and they're not trying to hide it. It's incumbent on us, the honest folks, to be proactive. If we are proactive and vigilant, we can protect brands and send the pirates back out to sea.
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"Pirate" image via Shutterstock.