Programmatic Placement, and What Can Happen When David Fights the Algorithm Goliath

Programmatic advertising is, to not put too fine a point on it, when a big fancy automated algorithm – not manually, by a person – makes decisions about where to bid, buy, and sell online ads (Young, 2014).

Like a giant online auction for digital ads! Except it’s not run by a fast-talking, gavel-swinging guy in overalls, it’s run by computers (see below) — and the “auctions,” starting from the time you click on an ad, goes down in milliseconds.

Programmatic is on the rise – it’s fast and can use data to target with great accuracy. The problem is, with no discerning warm body pulling the placement triggers, ads get placed on a wide swatch of websites.

When a brand enlists adtech companies (or, say, Google’s ad network), that brand doesn’t have total control over where its ads appear.Enter Breitbart News, the so-called alt-right website that figured into this fall’s presidential election. When ads appear there, they can appear next to stories like “Here’s Why There Ought to Be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths” (Pathak, 2016).

Sometimes the brands don’t know about these kinds of placements until Twitter watchdogs inform them. A tweeter named Sleeping Giants sends screenshots of ads that appear on Breitbart to the brands themselves. Some brands blacklist Breitbart so their ads don’t appear there – Allstate, Nest, Earthlink, Modcloth, Workable, and SoFi, for instance (Pathak, 2016).


There’s a flipside however: Breitbart had 19.2 visitors in October, and post election, some brands acknowledge the need to communicate with larger segments of the country (Bruell & Vranica, 2016; Pathak, 2016)

So, the agencies and the algorithms paint screens with ads, viewers react, the brands react to that, rinse, repeat. Even in Pathak’s Digiday post that inspired this post, the comments suggest boycotts of brands that advertise on Breitbart, and boycotts of those brands that boycotted in the first place. The debate and the vitriol seem to happen almost as fast as the computers who put the ads up in the first place!


Allen, R. (2016, February 8). What is Programmatic Marketing? Retrieved November 27, 2016, from

Bruell, A., & Vranica, S. (2016, November 21). Trump’s Win Has Ad Agencies Rethink How They Collect Data, Recruit staff. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from

Pathak, S. (2016, November 22). In response to complaints, some brands are pulling ads placed on Breitbart. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from

Young, A. (2014). Brand media strategy: Integrated communications planning in the digital era. Springer.

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