If there is anything we have learned about advertising in the 21st century, it is that it has become more stylised, customising, and targeting than ever before. Retailers and organisations make consumers feel as though products and services have been handpicked just for them. “Yes,” us modern ‘prosumers’ think, “this group is just as discerning as I. We both share the values of aesthetic and functional design paired with intelligent investment of time and money. Oh, and we both care about the world and stuff too.” It is [insert shitty coffee chain] capitalist-cum-activist magic formula in a bottle. While this awareness exists somewhere in our consciousness, it’s not always at the fore of our minds. For better or worse, it usually works and we expect it.
This is why ‘malgorithms,’ as publications like Private Eye have so lovingly named them, are so hilarious and offensive. What is a ‘malogrithm’? It is when programmatic advertising fails on a disastrous scale. The more common and now slightly outdated version was pornographic and adult advertising featured on websites popular with kids. It has since evolved into the juxtaposition of ads with the wrong content. Now, advertisers unintentionally make a punchline out of headlines. Here are some choice moments of programmatic advertising gone wrong:
Guardian headline: “’All lives matter’ rally was always racist—and this weekend’s Trump rally proved it”
The ad: “Brilliant cleaning for whites and colours” by Daz
Guardian headline: “Student ‘driven from campus’ after speaking out against rape seminar”
The ad: “How to make a winning first impression, sponsored by HSBC”
Yahoo News headline: “Business drivers risking safety by not taking breaks”
The ad: “Brilliant funeral insurance sweeping the UK”
In an age where ‘bespoke’ and ‘artisanal’ (actual provenance and heritage optional) are splashed across practically everything, we expect each phase of an organisation’s production and marketing processes to reflect these qualities. It is in these malgorithms that organisations and companies out themselves, exposing their mass market corporate interests and robotised broad stroke advertising “strategy.” Not only do malgorithms underscore how advertising and consumption have changed, but they hold a mirror up to us as essentially co-conspirators, compliant with this myth that capitalism is more in touch with us, our needs, and making the world a better place. The joke might seem to be on advertisers, but it’s also on us.