Or, as Hwang puts it: “The whole edifice of online advertising is, in short, bunk.”
These problems aren’t entirely new, of course. Hwang cites an adage attributed to the 19th-century businessman John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” But Wanamaker was grappling only with the problem of attribution—figuring out whether the money he spent on a newspaper ad, say, drove sales that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Today’s programmatic advertising has that issue in spades, plus the extensive problems of placement and fraud. At least Wanamaker could check that his ads had actually appeared in the newspaper.
Had the biggest ad agencies of the analog age—companies like Oglivy or WPP—gone belly-up in the 1980s, the fallout would have been limited to Madison Avenue. Now the central players are Facebook and Google, with Amazon racing to join them. Those three