Publishing company Gannett Co.
provided inaccurate information to advertisers for nine months, misrepresenting where billions of ads were placed, according to researchers who provided their findings exclusively to The Wall Street Journal.
Gannett owns USA Today as well as news outlets in 46 US states, from the Arizona Republic to the Detroit Free Press to the Palm Beach Post. Like many publishers, it sells ad space on its sites through real-time digital auctions.
In the case of Gannett, advertisers thought they were buying an ad on one Gannett site—very often the flagship USA Today—but actually purchased space on another, such as one of its many local outlets, according to ad industry researchers.
Gannett said in a statement that it provided the wrong information and that it regrets the error, which it said was unintentional. The publisher said its auctions still had some information, such as page URLs, that would enable advertisers and ad-tech companies to detect the true identity of the website where an ad was being placed.
The error was added to Gannett’s ad systems by one of its employees in May 2021, and was detected and corrected by the company on March 4 as it worked with a partner to integrate new technology, according to Gannett executives familiar with the situation. They said the issue may have harmed Gannett’s business and that the company is determining whether it will issue refunds to advertisers.
The discrepancies in Gannett’s ad auctions were discovered by Braedon Vickers, an independent ad industry researcher. He worked with Adalytics, a firm that helps brands analyze where their ads appear, to study the issue. The researchers estimated that the discrepancies, which they identified by analyzing code on Gannett sites, affected billions of ad auctions.
Many brands have rules regarding which news topics they want their ads to appear next to, often to avoid being associated with controversial content. The discrepancies in the Gannett auctions meant that many ad auctions couldn’t adhere to those rules, the researchers said.
In a typical example of how ad space was mislabeled, a reader of the Indianapolis Star was incorrectly represented in an online auction as a visitor to USA Today’s site, according to the researchers. An advertiser seeking to target a national audience could have instead reached people in Indiana. Music-streaming company Spotify and financial-services company Ally were among the advertisers who bought ad space that was purported to be for USA Today, the researchers said. Representatives for Spotify and Ally didn’t respond to requests for comment.
USA Today generates the lion’s share of web traffic among Gannett’s sites. In its latest annual report, the company said USA Today accounted for about 47% of its circulation—including digital pageviews and print reach.
In another example observed by a Wall Street Journal reporter, Capital One and American Red Cross bought ads that seemed as though they would appear on the Sarasota Herald-Tribune website, based on the information provided in the real-time auction. In fact, the ads ran on the website of Ruidoso News, a biweekly newspaper in New Mexico. An American Red Cross spokeswoman said the organization was unaware of the issue. Capital One didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Vickers said brands “were essentially bidding on incorrect inventory, so their ads may have ended up on sites that they did not intend or did not pay for.”
Among the major brands that purchased ad space that was labeled incorrectly in auctions were Sears,
Nike, Adidas, Ford, State Farm, Starbucks,
Kia and Marriott.
Representatives for those advertisers didn’t respond to requests for comments.
It wasn’t just the website itself that was being misrepresented in auctions, but also the article being viewed by the user who would see the ad, the researchers said. For example, in an instance observed by a Journal reporter, advertisers were told an article was about the viral game Wordle when it was actually about bear cubs in Pennsylvania.
In automated or “programmatic” online advertising, ad space is sold in a matter of milliseconds as a user is loading a webpage. Ad space on the page goes into an auction with important information for potential bidders—including details about the site, as well keywords that describe the content and some information about the user.
That “bid request” data was inaccurate in Gannett’s auctions over the period the researchers studied, they said. The ad tech marketplace is complex, with various middlemen who make ad space available, run real-time auctions and assist advertisers in placing bids. Many of those players have protections in place to identify misleading inventory in ad auctions, but didn’t appear to catch the Gannett issue, the researchers said.
“Programmatic advertising relies on a lot of data being self-reported by those selling the ads,” Mr. Vickers said. “That this issue went undetected for so long suggests that the processes in place to verify this information are not sufficient.”
Adalytics founder Krzysztof Franaszek said if issues like Gannett’s can go undetected, “it potentially puts brands and advertisers at risk.”
Write to Patience Haggin at email@example.com
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