Unilever Debuts Trusted Publisher Program to Better Battle Click-Fraud

The company is tight-lipped on exactly which companies will be looped into the rollout.

Unilever announced a "strict vetting criteria" for admittance into the Trusted Publishers program, which will specifically address ad fraud, online brand safety and traffic quality, among other metrics. Getty Images

Click-fraud is a beast that drains thousands of dollars from ad tech’s pockets every day—and now, one of the largest advertisers in the world is taking a stand.

Today, Unilever announced the rollout of the Unilever Trusted Publishers network in an effort to battle ad fraud across their brands. Per the company, the network will consist of a mesh of global, regional, and local online platforms and publishers. Unilever wouldn’t comment on the platforms or publishers that will be included as a part of the deal.

“The Unilever Trusted Publishers will add more rigor to how Unilever advertises online,” said Keith Weed, the company’s CMO, who is stepping down from the role in May. “We want to know that real people, not robots, are enjoying our ads. Bots don’t eat a lot of Ben & Jerry’s.”

Unilever announced a “strict vetting criteria” for admittance into the Trusted Publishers program, which will specifically address ad fraud, online brand safety and traffic quality, among other metrics. The consumer package goods giant has been vocal about ad fraud and malfeasance for a couple years now. At the 2018 IAB Leadership Summit, Weed challenged the platforms to clean up their sites. Now, publishers are in the mix. And with $9 billion in ad spend, when Weed says ‘jump,’ the industry asks how high.

Per the company, the rollout is meant to give Unilever more control over where its ads are placed to ensure that these ads are being viewed (and clicked on) by people, not bots. Unilever cited that botnets made to manipulate clicks of users—or pretend that clicks exist where they aren’t—are netting fraudsters an estimated $20 million per month. But the actual problem is a lot worse for the advertisers on the fraud’s receiving end, according to Michael Tiffany, the cofounder of White Ops.

“The losses to advertisers are actually way bigger, ” he added, estimating that the total loss falls into roughly a 6:1 ratio, where every dollar netted through fraud can result in advertisers losing six. This is chalked up to money being parsed out through the various actors on the buy- and sell-side of the advertising supply chain, and also the structure of fraud. Botnets, like the ones Unilever is attempting to subvert here, are often run through various intermediaries.

“It’s not a vertically integrated fraud-shop,” he explained. “There’s one or two actors also running fake publishers. There’s the supply chain of fake traffic, where middlemen at every step are taking their piece.”

Tiffany also added that cutting down on bots means cutting down on a lot of the clicks that advertisers enjoy currently on their paid-per-click adverts. “Bots are often ‘clickier’ then real human beings,” he explained, adding that even in cases where bots make up a small percentage of the total traffic, they still give the lion’s share of total clicks—something we’ll continue to see as human click-through rates consistently get lower and lower.

Pairing up with trusted publishers is just one of the many steps that Unilever has taken to shift themselves closer to battling this kind of fraud and put themselves on the map as a brand-safe ideal. Last December, the company rolled out their Responsibility Framework to “improve transparency and rebuild consumer trust in an era of fake news and toxic online content.”

Meanwhile, the company has also doubled down on its anti-fraud stance, announcing it will no longer work with influencers in the habit of buying fake followers, nor will the company allow its stable of brands to purchase fraudulent followers.

“Online advertising credibility is still a global, industry-wide problem,” said Weed. “As the world’s second largest advertiser, we have a responsibility to use our scale and influence to address this issue.”

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@swodinsky shoshana.wodinsky@adweek.com Shoshana Wodinsky is Adweek's platforms reporter, where she covers the financial and societal impacts of major social networks. She was previously a tech reporter for The Verge and NBC News.