Season 3, Ep. 9 – Transparency and accountability in digital advertising, with Claire Atkin, Co-Founder of CheckMyAds
The web of digital advertising is wide-spread and many-threaded; when companies use ad tech to promote their products, they don’t always know what their ads are supporting. This week Faith talks to Claire Atkin, co-founder of CheckMyAds, about how ad tech makes money, ways to tackle big advertising, and how we can all help fight the funding of hatred and misinformation.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
Claire, I’m so excited to have you on the Frontier podcast. I obviously know about you and CheckMyAds, because Gun.io has been working with you all for a little bit, but I think there’s just a huge opportunity for our listeners to learn from what you’re doing and Check My Ads in general. So I’m stoked to get into it.
Thank you, Faith, it’s wonderful to be here, and thanks for your interest in CheckMyAds. We’ve been an ad tech watchdog for a year and a bit, and…
And oh my gosh, I didn’t realize it’s only a year.
Yeah, we incorporated as a non-profit in October of 2021, and the first year was huge. I mean, we defunded the insurrectionists…
Fox News pundit (00:46):
We need to strike at the heart of their power. We need to show that their next revolution is just getting started. (MOUSE CLICK SOUND)
Claire, via a CheckMyAds advertisement (00:55):
It’s no secret That Fox News contributed to the January 6th insurrection. So it’s strange that Fox News still has advertisers. The advertising industry has made it clear they don’t want to sponsor violence of any kind, let alone the overthrow of the government.
Nandini Jammi (01:10):
Advertisers don’t want to be associated with toxic content like this, and they don’t know they are. That’s because advertisers don’t place ads on the internet themselves. They pay ad tech companies to do it for them.
Now it’s up to us to block Fox to make sure Foxnews.com is cut off from the digital advertising industry today.
Claire, via podcast (01:30):
It’s not a surprise because we had been doing this work for three years prior, just with a newsletter, but now it has a home, and we have a team and yeah. Thanks to you, we have some development support. It’s all coming together.
Awesome. Oh, that’s so cool. How big is the team now?
Oh my gosh. (Claire: Yeah.) That’s huge. (Claire: <Laugh>.) I was, you know, I kind of like, go off LinkedIn with team size, so I was like, this is, you know, it’s Claire and your co-founder, whose name is…
Nandini. Nandini Jammi.
Yeah. I was like, they are doing incredible work for just being a team of two. So I’m glad to hear that, in fact, there are nine people helping you build this thing, because I was a little worried about your <laugh> (Claire: <Laugh>.) free time and personal life, so that’s awesome. I guess like, the most obvious place to start is what is CheckMyAds? And you know how, walk me through the genesis story there.
CheckMyAds is the ad tech watchdog. What happened is that Nandani and I were marketers, and we realized that the tools that we were using as marketers were being used to undermine our democratic systems and our public safety, and we wanted to look into that. So we started to ask questions publicly in a newsletter. It’s called Branded. You can find it at checkmyads.org/branded now, right all the way back to the very beginning, January 20. And we were just saying like, as marketers, what the heck is going on in ad tech? There is a real divide within the industry between strategy and what actually happens. And so we started to, sort of, look under the hood, and as soon as we did, a lot of ad tech researchers started to come out and say, “Oh, you wanna pay attention to this? Great. Here’s everything you need to know.” And one after the next, we just had these stories come out. So that’s how we got started, and we’ve had quite a lot of opposition within ad tech. They don’t want us to look under the hood, and I think that’s normal. I think advertisers, in general, have been really dissuaded from checking their own ads, so that’s why we’re here.
Wow. Yeah, I imagine, I mean, anytime you’re working within an industry to the tune of billions of dollars, obviously, there’s gonna be a lot of pushback. And so I just subscribed to your newsletter; I’m very excited. <Laugh>. (Claire: <Laugh>. Welcome.) Also, I’m sorry if you can hear crows in the background. It’s like the Crows Have Eyes in my backyard right now. I work out of my garden shed, and there’s just always some kind of nature thing happening around me
<Laugh>. That sounds nice.
<Laugh>. It is nice. Except when they’re clearly fighting about something right now, so I dunno what’s going on. Anyway, I just subscribed to your newsletter. I’m really excited to start reading it, and I didn’t realize that the two of you were marketers previously. I should have known, because your stuff is exceptional, just really well designed. Your copy’s super clear. So when you transitioned into CheckMyAds, was the full-time transition in 2021 in October when you incorporated or had it been kind of in the works for a long time?
We transitioned back in 2020 from our freelance and strategy positions within, we were marketers for tech companies. So we transitioned, then, to an agency. We were an agency for about a year, and we worked with Fortune 500 companies, the departments of brand marketing, advertising and communications. We would bring them together, and we would discuss brand safety guidelines and how to create a delineation between what is and is not appropriate and how to communicate it down the supply chains, so that your brand did not end up sponsoring hate. And we were working on that, and the more we had these conversations with our clients, the more we realized that, actually, they don’t have control over their own campaigns any longer.
It’s been taken from them by the ad tech companies. Ad tech companies have rusted all of the control away and they’ve instead said, “Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe. We only work with premium publishers, and here are the high level reports, the KPIs. You wanna measure your campaign based on how many people saw it, and how low your cost is per thousand people who saw it.” That’s not how to measure the success of a campaign.
Marketing is not about how many people saw your stuff. That’s only one part of it, and the missing piece, now, is that brand equity has been forgotten.
And so marketers, like Nandani and I, think about brand equity all the time. Who do we associate with in order to build trust and respect for our brand? And in the ad tech system, that equation has been completely forgotten. And brand safety companies, especially, have really complicated the idea of association. They’ve said things like, “Oh, you don’t wanna be associated with bad news.” No, that’s not it. You don’t wanna be associated with bad publishers. We’ve had a lot of discussions about this very publicly, because we think that the ad tech system has really co-opted the idea of marketing at all, and in their hands it doesn’t make sense.
Right. I hadn’t thought about the brand equity piece, because you’re right, so much of brand awareness is like, our understanding of a brand exists within a web of other connections that make that brand come to mind at certain times. And as a marketer myself, I know that I have very little control over how that web is formed in my audience’s mind. So that’s fascinating. Is there a way for marketers, like me, other than subscribing to your newsletter and staying up to date with kind of the latest in terms of ad tech news <laugh>, and is there a tool we could use? How do you recommend we get started there?
The very first thing that marketers need to understand is that there is a disinformation economy. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) That’s what we’re here to dismantle. The disinformation economy is about the relationships, the business relationships with ad tech, and publishers of disinformation. Okay, so it’s very easy as a marketer to just be like, “Well, I just don’t want my ads associated with hate.” Yes. Right, (Faith: <Laugh>.) but it’s more than that. We need to also make sure that we are not funding hate. So if you think like a propagandist, you need three things, right? You need money, of course, to sustain and grow your operation. You need data, the personal identifiable information of Americans so that you can better and better target and divide people. And you need ads, because ads give legitimacy to the lies that you are publishing.
Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that.
Yeah. So as a propagandist, you want all of these three things. And so when you’re a marketer, and you’re saying, “No, listen. I don’t want my ads to be supporting any of your work whatsoever,” you need to cut them off. Not just from the ads, but from the data and the money. (Faith: Hmm.) So that’s what we’re doing at CheckMyAds. We’re uncovering networks of disinformation, so that you can take them out entirely from the supply chain. What can you do as a marketer? The very first thing, check your ads. Actually go through your campaigns. And if you don’t have enough data to do that, demand that you get your log level data minus personal identifiable information, minus that PII. So demand your log level data, make sure it’s in your contract before you sign with your ad tech vendor that you get that data. Of course, you’re gonna need like, an AWS bucket or something to contain it, (Faith: Right.) and then you’re going to want to go through it. You can, you can go through it yourself, or you can pay someone to go through it, but you wanna know what’s there, because I guarantee you, there’s going to be wasted spend anyway, and you’re gonna get your money back in a big way.
Okay. The second thing, demand refunds. Don’t be afraid to push back. You are the client, and they have promised you a lot of things. They’ve promised you in the contract, premium publishers, brand safety. If you look on the website, premium publishers, brand safety. And if you look in their publisher policies, these ad tech vendors have very specific language about what they would never allow in their inventory. Things like COVID-19 disinformation, hate and harassment, election disinformation. Playwire has “We don’t work with publishers that seek to overthrow a government, any of the insurrectionists.” (Faith: <Laugh>.) No deal, right? Okay. So you go through those publisher policies, and you look at who you’ve actually funded, and you can demand refunds based on those publisher policies as well.
Well, I haven’t thought about the power that the buyer has in an ad business relationship, I think, because so many of the platforms that I work with are giant conglomerates <laugh>. So it’s very difficult to see yourself as any sort of power-wielding player in that system. As you’re talking, I’m thinking the mission of CheckMyAds is so huge, and there are so many networks like you’re describing to uncover, and I’m curious how you prioritize your work. How do you decide what’s most important?
That challenge that you just talked about, that challenge that you just elucidated, that is the power dynamic between what looks, to us, like big ad tech companies, especially when we’re a smaller advertiser. How do we demand what we need? And one of the ways that we can talk about that is literally uncovering stories when it’s sketchy. And any advertiser who is dealing with this kind of challenge, who has demanded refunds or demanded their data, and they’re not getting it, can come to CheckMyAds, and we will talk about it publicly with you, either anonymous or here with us, if you like. (Faith: Yeah.) That is our job. We uncover these stories, because we are the watchdog. Secondly, it’s actually surprising how much competition is within ad tech. (Faith: Hmm.) You don’t have to go to Google, you can go to other ad exchanges who have better business practices.
Google has some of the worst business practices in the industry, because they can, because they are such a huge monopoly. (Faith: Right.) But we don’t have to use Google. We can go to other places, and those other places have to compete against Google by having standards. So I think that’s helpful to remember. Yeah, this is a really big problem. We’re not just fighting disinformation. We’re fighting the rise of global authoritarianism. People who use disinformation in order to build up distrust and cynicism in populations so that they can get their political opponents elected. I mean, this is an around-the-world problem. (Faith: Mmm.) We are doing our best. We are going to be working on bigger, bigger disinformation networks. Already the branded coming out is going to be all about disinformation networks within the supply chain, itself. It’s not just a publisher, it’s actually within the ad tech.
Marketers can subscribe (Faith: <Laugh>.) at checkmyads.org/branded <laugh>.
Like I said, I’m very excited to become a stan of this newsletter.
Did I answer your question?
You did. Yeah. I mean, the crux of it is how do you prioritize? Well, you just do everything you can, especially when it’s a small team like yours, and so much of the work you’re doing is coming from community reported violations. (Claire: Right.) You know, it becomes easy to just say “yes” to putting a voice behind those things, right?
We don’t work in the gray area; that’s how we prioritize. Like, if there’s any wishy-washy, like, oh, you know, I don’t know, left versus right, there’s like, we don’t do any of that. We’re not a political organization. We are here to combat extremism right now. It so happens that most extremism, most consistent systematic disinformation is coming from one side of the political spectrum. But we’re here to uphold what is called the brand safety floor. What the entire industry has described as “the bar is on the floor.”
<Laugh>. But what is not appropriate, and those kinds of things are extremism, hate and harassment, and what they call the irresponsible and harmful treatment of sensitive social issues. So if you’re using a sensitive social issue to drive a wedge in a population, intentionally, systematically, and you’re lying while you do it, that’s not okay. That’s how we prioritize. And last year, we defunded the insurrectionists. We identified the six top voices that supported the “Big Lie” that supported the insurrection.
Nandini Jammi, via CheckMyAds advertisement (14:44):
There are a handful of individuals in America who tell lies for a living. Who are pulling us apart and pushing our country to its limits, because it makes them money. The more extreme, the better it is for them. One year ago, their business model nearly cost us our democracy.
Extremist personality 1 (15:00):
Legitimate voter fraud has been happening in our country.
Extremist personality 2 (15:02):
Descend on Washington DC January 6th, the day the electoral college votes. It’s gonna be wild.
Nandini Jammi (15:10):
To them, January 6th wasn’t an attack on our country, it was payday. We didn’t elect these people into power and we can’t vote them out of office. But at this very moment, they’re using their influence to lead us straight into another violent insurrection in 2024.
Claire, via CheckMyAds advertisement (15:25):
But there’s one way to stop them: cut them off at the source. Advertising dollars are a blank check for these online extremists.
Nandini Jammi (15:33):
Every YouTube video…
Every live stream…
Every article promoting the “Big Lie” and “Stop the Steal,” the explosion of lies and deception that brought a violent mob to seize our government. It was all funded by ads, and it still is. These ads are done. It’s (AUDIO FADES OUT).
Claire, via the podcast (15:48):
Just, we go big, and we go obvious. That’s how we prioritize, right? The other thing is that we work in public. Ad tech vendors will often ask us like, “Hey, if you had just told us like, we could have fixed this.” (Faith: <Laugh>.) No. It’s your job to make sure that you’re not working with extremists. And we are going to be very public about it, so that everyone knows that you are not holding the bar high enough. Literally. It’s not even on the floor (Faith: <Laugh>.) <laugh>. It’s underground. And so then, all the other ad tech vendors also know that they have a standard to meet.
Yeah. I think there’s certainly a lot of power and public accountability, and I think that’s true for everything, not just massive ad tech firms. As you’re talking, I’m wondering if you have a background in journalism, because it feels like so many of these practices are just like, best practices for journalists. Right?
Nandani and I do not consider ourselves journalists. We consider ourselves advocates. And the reason is that, although we adhere to journalistic standards as best we can, although we are untrained, we surround ourselves with people who do understand these things. We, of course, have a legal team and most importantly what we say has an opinion. We are not afraid of being objective and opinionated at the same time. And that point of view is pointed. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) The point is that if you think that you can be neutral, within a media ecosystem, that is currently traffic controlling ads, money and data to propagandists, and we’ve lost 30,000 journalism jobs in the last decade, you’re wrong. You can no longer stay silent about it. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) It’s just, we have to work towards an ecosystem that makes sense, not only for the public, but for advertisers, as well. And right now, the only people that it’s working for is the ad tech people.
Hmm. Right. Yeah, I mean, and on that note, ad tech is changing all the time. Even in my seat, where I’m just interacting with ad tech platforms to do the very basic exchange that they’re made to do, it’s kind of a constant professional development mandate to learn what’s happening and what’s new in the ad tech sphere. And so I’m curious how you all stay ahead of that as, kind of, straddling both sides, right? Like, from a marketer’s perspective and also from a watchdog perspective.
How we stay ahead of everything is that we are not ahead. I mean we’re (Faith: <Laugh>.) <laugh> behind, and I think that is what is so shocking. Like, advertisers are always behind ad tech in what is coming down the pike. (Faith: Yeah.) And what we’re seeing now is that that has caused a dynamic where ad tech is constantly working to obfuscate what is actually happening. An example of this is CTV: connected tv. It’s basically streaming. So like, your smart TV has apps within those apps. They have an ad network, and those ads connect to media networks that are being shown on your television. The supply chain for an ad to go from an advertiser to an ad agency, to an ad exchange, to another ad exchange, to the Pluto app on your Samsung TV is even more obfuscated than on the open web.
Because it can be because it’s new. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) And that’s how we found, for instance, in the fall, Procter and Gamble inadvertently funding Real America’s Voice and Pandemic War Room, where Steve Bannon called for the beheading of Dr. Fauci.
Oh my gosh.
So we had Tide ads sponsoring Steve Bannon in an industry that has blackballed Steve Bannon since 2016. He is the most universally brand-unsafe character in the world.
The biggest, most powerful advertiser that spends $11 billion a year and millions on brand safety was there. I mean, that just goes to show how difficult it is to keep your brand safe on these new technologies. We’re just trying to keep up.
Man. Yeah. I mean, if P&G can’t do it, then you know, teeny tiny Gun.io is certainly gonna have problems too <laugh>.
I mean, I think the obvious question here is, for folks listening who are not in positions of power at ad tech companies to become internal watchdogs, just regular folks like you and I, what can we do to help serve CheckMyAds’ mission?
So if you come across any spicy stories or even just questions, you can always email us at [email protected] We love hearing from folks. If you also just want to make a difference, what we do is we send action emails out to about 60,000 members who have signed up to send emails to ad tech companies. Those ad tech companies are funding disinformation, and they know it. They have business relationships. But on the other hand, they also have publisher policies that have promised their clients brand safety. And so what we do is we send out emails every once in a while with the name of the executive, maybe their legal counsel, their email addresses, and then a template that says, “Hey, this is the exact language you use in your publisher policy. How are you squaring that with your business practices?” That’s something that you can do.
It’s one way that we put pressure on ad tech companies. It’s a really lovely way to be involved. The other thing is that we are constantly building, sort of, a collective brain within the CheckMyAds community. We need your perspective. And one of the ways that we’re going to do that, this year, is we’re actually launching a book club. It’s not announced yet, (Faith: Cool!) but we’re starting to, sort of, see it. If you get on the list at Branded or on the action emails, we will be announcing it this year. And that’s one way that we can read together, think together, really contribute to a larger conversation about how do we deal with the idea that all of our advertising is funding and directing our entire media system, our entire internet as we know it today. This is a $400 to $700 billion industry, and we have a very small group of people traffic controlling all of the power we need to really consider this subject collectively. And that’s what we’re trying to do at CheckMyAds.
Claire, thank you so much for joining us on the Frontier podcast. This is so much fun, and I really appreciate the action items you shared. And if folks are listening, and they wanna get in touch with you, specifically, I know you shared [email protected], do you have a preferred method of communication, a preferred social platform where folks can follow along?
Yeah, we’re @CheckMyAdsHQ on Twitter, @checkmyads on TikTok, and LinkedIn, and Instagram. Please follow us there. But more than that like, chat to us. We wanna hear from you. (Faith: Yeah.) Nandini, my business partner, and I, our respective Twitter handles are @nandoodles and @catthekin. You can find us on Twitter still, and of course, Mastodon, as well. Get in touch. We love to hear from you. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN).
Awesome. Thank you so much, Claire. Hopefully we can find an excuse to get you back on the podcast soon.
It’s an honor. Thanks for letting me be here.
Thanks for listening to the Frontier podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @thefrontierpod, and we’ll see you next week.
(MUSIC STOPS) Claire, is there anything else you’d like to cover today that we didn’t touch on in our conversation?
No, I think it’s perfect <laugh>. (Faith: <Laugh>.) Yeah, really good questions.
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