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Profits, Long Tails and Truth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, December 31, 2016

The tantalizing opportunities for inexpensive internet marketing is creating a moral quandary for ad agencies and the brands they represent: Are they carelessly bankrolling the toxic websites that promote fake news, wild conspiracy theories and irresponsible rumor? 

A New York Times story by Sapna  Maheshwari explains much online advertising takes advantage of  the long tail of the internet.  The long tail is the name for statistical distributions found in power laws, Pareto distributions,  and exemplified in population clusters,  the occurrence of rare illnesses, and income inequality among other things.  The work of mathematician Benoit Mendelbrot has led him to be called “the father of long tails.”  Chris Anderson popularized the commercial application of term in 2004 Wired Magazine article, and elaborated on it in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.  A long tail strategy in sales would mean selling small numbers of items from a seemingly infinite inventory to large numbers of people could produce more profit than selling blockbuster items to fewer people.

“The long tail is to advertising what the subprime was to mortgages,” said John Marchese, president of advertising products for the Fox Networks Group, told the Times. . “No one knows what’s in it, but it helps people believe there is a mysterious tonnage of impressions that are really low cost.” “Impressions” is an advertising industry term that generally means an ad has been displayed and can be viewed.

Prominent well-established online sites usually deal directly with their advertisers.  For a fraction of the cost a complex system of agencies and third party networks can place ads on thousands of smaller little-known sites, such blogs and niche sites that draw small but attractive audiences such as parents or trucking enthusiasts.  The system is automated, and as Marchese explains, it is set up to reward clicks and impressions. That reward, according to Marc Goldberg, chief executive of Trust Metrics, an ad safety vendor, has fueled the introduction of low quality sites in the advertising ecosystem.  Technology that can protect brands from appearing on sites that feature violence and pornography has been less effective in weeding out site for irresponsible fake news.

In addition to deliberately fabricated partisan news, teenagers and young adults in the U.S. and abroad this year discovered they could make easy money creating fake news sites and making up rabidly partisan stories intended to be spread Facebook and circulated through Google. Google and Facebook have both announced plans to target false information.

VOX reported researchers found several pernicious fake stories, which even after being discredited, got vastly more shares and reached more people than stories from respected traditional news sources. Further, Vox reported that earlier this year investigations conducted by BuzzFeed found that nearly 40 percent of the content published by far right Facebook pages and 19 percent of the content published by extreme left-leaning Facebook pages was false or misleading.  BuzzFeed even found that in one own in Macedonia, a ring of teens was making money by publishing thousands of fake right-wing news stories across hundreds of fake news websites. Anytime a story went viral, they’d make money on the ads that accompanied it.

Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. And the “post” in this hyphenated term doesn’t just mean “after.” The Oxford announcement explains "post" now has an expanded meaning signifying that it “belongs to a time when the specified concept (truth) has become unimportant or irrelevant.”


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