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Edition 7 · BS or Brilliant: Drain the ad swamp 🐊

Updated: Aug 1, 2022


How is buying digital media similar to buying cocaine?

It's somewhat likely to produce a temporary high. There's probably some good stuff, but also novacane and toilet-garbage. The glitz and good times fund a sinister underbelly.

Beware the comedown.

Likening digital media to cocaine habits isn’t a stretch. As with the war on drugs, the problem runs deep, lost in a labyrinth of complexity. Kingpins (tech CEOs), armies of enablers (ad tech companies) and addicts (all of us) fuel the swirl.

On one hand, it’s bad for businesses, who bleed money to fake numbers (and are simultaneously obsessed with those numbers). On the other hand, it’s bad for people (most especially, young women), the state of whose mental health resembles a WWII battlefield. After all, wasn’t it just this month the Wall Street Journal revealed Facebook’s own research stating that for teenage girls with body image issues, Instagram made things worse for ⅓ of them. The same research revealed that among teens who’ve had suicidal thoughts, 6 and 14 percent in the USA and UK respectively traced that desire back to Instagram.

To avoid an aneurysm, let’s begin with ad fraud and how it's bad for business.

Gucci ain’t the only one with a fake problem.

The ad fraud landscape is bleak. The issue? No one seems to know exactly what’s going on or how to stop it. Estimates around the extent of the ad fraud problem vary widely, but one thing’s certain, the complexity and opaqueness of the online media space is a breeding ground for bad actors. The intricacy of the system is self-protective. Few people or brands have the resources and technical prowess to investigate.

And It’s not all bots, a portion of ad fraud is human in nature. Aided and abetted by real people with poor economic prospects who stand to gain financially from generating fake traffic and likes. Like any good activity on the edge of the law, patterns and tactics are persistently updated to evade detection. Bask in the glory of these damning statistics.

  • Online ad fraud has overtaken credit card fraud despite the fact that the credit card business is ten times the size of online advertising.

  • By 2025, ad fraud may be the second largest source of criminal income on the planet, behind drug trafficking (cartels might consider updating their overarching mission to ‘elevating the world’s dopamine’).

  • 2 of 3 ads in the US are being shown to bots, according to research from Dr Augustine Fou.

  • 28% of web traffic comes from non-human actors, says Adobe.

  • A study by Forrester found 69% of brands spending $1 million per month reported that at least 20% of their budgets were being lost to digital ad fraud; 70% of these companies reported that they were actually planning to increase their digital advertising budget.

In the consumer law world, customers are entitled to refunds when they pay for something, and that product or service isn't delivered. This is the standard to which countless businesses, from mom-and-pop delis to multinational consulting companies are held. When it comes to digital advertising, those rules go out the gilded door.

Web of lies: How we got here

Any online media discussion is incomplete (read: non-existent) without addressing the behemoths; Google and Facebook. In fact, if you remove these two giants, the digital ad category isn’t growing at all. We’ll focus here on the more evil twin Facebook for the sake of brevity.

There are many ways online ads work. Oversimplified, likes, clicks and traffic make the online ad world go around. If some of those are fake, delivered by dubious profiles, click farms, and automated traffic, honest customers are paying for fake sh*t. But please, Zuckerbot, tell me more about how exactly you are 'standing up for small businesses everywhere'? By taking their money? Here, I fixed your stupid print ad.

How much do you really know about Facebook’s Audience Network? It’s their offering for display ads bought on Facebook that appear outside of Facebook. Imagine a suite of billboards, but instead of street corners and bus stops ads appear in apps and on publishers' sites.

The audience network allows publishers and developers to monetize their digital properties, advertisers pay to receive traffic and clicks from these sites. Great! But there’s a small problem. A portion of traffic and engagement on these sites is faker than Kim Kardashian’s ass.

Many of these publishers have an incentive to seek traffic at all costs. It’s the lifeblood that keeps their business desirable.

Above: Facebook recommends using Facebook Audience Network within their Business Manager tool.

Above: This is a snapshot of the 98,642 places your ad could appear if your ad is running on Facebook’s Audience Network (the recommended, default option). Plus, devil Sandberg.

Life without Facebook: Will somebody think of the brands?

In 2017, Uber progressively reduced their digital ad budget by $100 million. What was previously shown as paid results simply … became organic results. The lack of, well, anything material happening raised alarm bells. Uber was so confident this was due to bogus numbers they counter-sued their agency Phunware, who had sued them for delayed invoice payments. Uber won the first landmark ad fraud case in January.

Phunware had used click flooding and auto redirects to inflate clicks whether users actually clicked the ad or not.

"We turned off two thirds of our ad spend – $100m out of annual spend of $150m – and basically saw no change in our number of rider app installs. What we saw is a lot of installs we thought had come through paid channels suddenly came through organic”

- Kevin Frisch · Ex-Uber Head of Acquisition, CRM & Marketing Analytics

Chase, Visa and Amazon all fell victim to similar low quality traffic scandals. As a result, Chase reduced their programmatic reach from 400,000 sites showing its ads to 5,000 sites showing its ads to focus on reputable properties only.

Feel familiar? P&G turned off $200 million in digital ad spending. Nada change in business outcomes. (This wasn’t due solely to ad fraud, though low quality traffic may have played a role in the distinct lack of ‘effect’, and CMO Marc Pritchard is a vocal ad-fraud critic). WHAT.A.MESS

Every large agency and holding group is complicit in this shit heap. Little guys, small mom-and-pops have no way to speak up. The agency networks have direct lines to the innards of the ad-tech companies and Facebook. They go to fancy dinners, and eat foie-gras at Cannes in June. Nothing changes when the caviar’s at stake.

And that’s precisely the problem. There’s no incentive for change. Feast your eyes on the chart below, courtesy of the World Federation of Advertisers. The level of ad fraud doesn’t impact how much players in the ecosystem get paid. You could even argue ad fraud benefits the system - the more traffic you can show, the more they’ll pay.

So nothing shall change. It’s not in our nature to correct a mistake made in our favor. Neither Facebook, agencies, nor the ad-tech fraudsters have an incentive to disclose what portion of ad results are garbage. Unless this information is sought out from a third-party fraud protection provider (and even they can’t keep up with changing patterns and methods), everyone’s at the mercy of the black box.

Bad for people: Drain the swamp

None of this is to say online media does not or cannot work. But this is an appeal to all marketers to evaluate their budgets and metrics with a skeptical eye. Be scrupulous. It’s difficult to resist the siren-call of tangible metrics, but digital is rife with snake-oil stats and societal harm.

Marketers ‘all in’ on digital may want to consider the ecosystem they’re funding. As we gradually exit one pandemic, we’re systemically funding another. One of poor teen mental health, outrage, cartel violence, and status-based exemptions. All that’s gone from sneaking suspicion to hard facts this month thanks to The Wall Street Journal’s release of ‘The Facebook Files’. It’s something we’ve all known for a while thanks to brave whistleblowing by the likes of Jonathan Haidt, except now we know that Facebook knows. Scott Galloway called it in 2019, Zuck’s a sociopath.

Social media and Facebook products (particularly Instagram) make teens and preteens miserable. Since the rise of social media, non-fatal self-harm hospital admissions for preteen girls have tripled. Correlation isn’t causation, but what other compelling hypothesis is there? Social media intensifies the worst of high-school aggression.

Meanwhile, COO Sheryl Sandberg has the audacity to stand as the symbolic beneficiary from a book encouraging women to lean in! To what, exactly?

Facebook watches on, as their market capitalization more than doubles during a global pandemic in which countless small businesses are crushed. Standing up for them, everywhere!

Can we watch on? While our young women harm and hate themselves in inordinate numbers. Shame on us.


On to more pleasant imagery, which brand comes to mind when you think ‘Peanut Butter’? For many Americans, whether team crunchy or creamy, the answer is Smucker’s-owned Jif. And it’s no surprise. Like everyone in Brooklyn, the brand’s been on a journey.

Jif overhauled their marketing model after the arrival of the then new CMO Geoff Tannenbaum in 2019. Since then, the brand’s made imaginative moves to focus on four key components; speed to market, breakthrough creative, cross-platform media, and embedding the brand in culture.

Jif’s story is one of creative commitment and consistency (or as the brand might call it, creative bravery). Team Cut the Crap spoke to Alan Wilson and Pete Defries, two of the Publicis Creative Directors driving Jif’s imaginative streak.

Enjoy the inside scoop.

How it started…

Jif embraced quirky, fun, and funny, and reaped the results. Since 2019, the creative team has taken peanut butter where it’s never gone before. For example, Ludacris’ mouth (in honor of Mumble rap) and a Gladiator battle in The Colosseum (to celebrate its new squeezy format. The elaborate ad was produced remotely during covid). Fight to the Jif!

These wacky campaigns were designed to address what Geoff believes to be marketing’s biggest challenge, winning customers’ attention.

"Increasingly, consumers have a choice as to whether they want to engage with our creative. We need to raise the bar, we need to earn their attention … we completed some research that shows 50% of the effectiveness of advertising is driven by how good the creative is

- Geoff Tannenbaum · CCO & CMO of the J.M. Smucker Co.

Yep, Smucker's found 50% of whether or not customers give a flying fruitcake about your ad depends on the strength of the creative.

How it’s going….

Jif’s results shout loudly, 2020 sales rose 5% from $1.97B to $2.077B compared to the previous year.

Here’s a timeline of Jif’s creative voyage.

Bullshit or Brilliant?

Before the launch of this monthly column, team Cut the Crap concocted a framework to guide our nominations. What makes something BS? What makes it brilliant? Here’s the framework and how Jif scores. (Take a look here if that's tough to read)

Eat my dust

Jif has led the category significantly for the better part of the last two decades. As with any self-respecting market-leader, they deeply understand that’s an extra crappy reason to sit back, rest on those laurels and drink mimosas. Edging ahead and staying there is a matter of committing to creativity while diligently balancing long-term brand building and short-term sales activation. “If you insert yourself in a brave way in a cultural moment, you can transcend advertising and become part of culture itself. Brave work gives you a right to do that” noted Alan. Pete added “If the idea makes you and others nervous, that’s a good sign it’s a brave idea” With that starting point, it’s unsurprising Jif’s most noteworthy score goes to the brand’s creative brilliance. This isn’t a creative hit and run. This is disciplined multi-year execution with remarkable consistency. Pete and Alan were given the freedom to bring wild ideas to life in the name of breakthrough creative. The Balancing Act: Becoming a master brand builder

For many, the road to ‘master brand builder’ is blocked by an incessant boardroom battle. Balancing is made all the more difficult by crushing short-term demands, and the difficulty communicating the value of brand building activity, whose efforts come to fruition on a longer horizon. Why take a risk when you can play it safe? Why run a brand campaign when you can spike sales now?

But here’s why committing to brand dollars matters. Every marketer’s favorite research by Binet and Field shows the impact of these efforts compound over time. Brand investments raise the base, where short-term sales activation efforts create a short-term spike. It’s exercise vs cocaine. Edge too far into sales activation waters and you’ll find yourself in a 70s, Stevie Nicks style binge accompanied by Macy's, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Revlon. Careful! It’s tough to leave.

So let Jif serve as a stellar proof point the next time you’re in one of those discussions.

Behind the scenes, there’s an element of primary importance that doesn’t feature on our scorecard. Alan and Pete both underscore the importance of “relationship quality”. Both the agency and the client are committed to making interesting, tell-a-friend worthy work. Respect, trust, and risk-appetite form the foundation of this partnership’s success.

“Since the beginning of this relationship, the client promised brave creative work. We’ve done everything we can to deliver on that promise. It’s a true partnership” said Alan. No nonsense here: The power of the silly and the absurd

Competition in the nut butter category is spicy. A search for ‘peanut butter' on reveals 1000+ results. CPG-world is often a place of low product differentiation. In that universe, brand differentiation takes primary importance. Jif’s suite of weird, memorable creative, backed by smart media across channels translates to fresh, strong, active memory structures when it matters most.

In November 2020 we asked The Ad Contrarian what made this wildly memorable Australian beer ad one of the greats. His response - “It’s just so silly”. Squirrel costumes, Jif vs Gif, peanut-butter-induced mumble rap, and gladiator showdowns are all so ridiculous, (ludacris, even). That’s what makes Jif’s creative transformation so intensely delicious.

Also of note, the way Jif ‘connects the dots’ across channels. New campaigns go live on high-reach channels (e.g. TV paired with a TikTok challenge) to build quick campaign reach.

Creative is adapted, but all channels fire with the same comms to drive the message home and improve memorability.

Many agencies begin with ‘what are competitors doing’ as the first port of call. But if brave work is the objective, competitive intelligence could be the starting point for what not to do.

“Peanut butter had become very mommy-marketing. For us, it was about how could we move away from that to do something category-breaking and brave”. Brave marketers, go forth and shepherd your weird ideas, as Pete says “most work gets over thought into mediocrity”.

Excuse us while we submerge ourselves in a pool of PB.



Cut the Crap is on the hunt for interns. If you’re a writer, general marketing nerd or someone who loves to build a community we’d love to hear from you. Fill out the contact us form on our site or send a carrier pigeon and let’s chat.

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