A billion-dollar mistake is just around the corner for electronic adland
A view from Russell Davies

A billion-dollar mistake is just around the corner for electronic adland

One of my first jobs was as the regional account manager on the Fiat dealer account. I made sure the dealers ran ads that Fiat HQ was happy with and one of my first tasks was managing the announcement that the fabulous Fiat Tipo had been awarded the prestigious title of European Car of the Year.

Artwork was physical in those days, so I had to send the Car of the Year logo out to each of the dealers, together with strict instructions about just how it was supposed to be used – no abusing the logo, no misusing the Car of the Year language etc.

Imagine my delight, then, when I saw the ad that one of our dealers had put in their local paper. Big and bold, a picture of the Tipo next to the Car of the Year logo and the words: "Fiat Taipo: European Car of the Week." The fact they had made Tipo sound like typo was the cherry on the cake. I had that ad laminated and I’ve been conscious of the way mass media magnifies mistakes ever since. Fortunately, it was only in one little local paper – the mistake didn’t spread.

As more of our work is placed and created by robots, I wonder what startling new errors we’ll generate

I was reminded of that moment the other day when I read about the "Twitter hack crash". You probably heard about it too. The Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked by the "Syrian Electronic Army" and the AP briefly appeared to report that the White House had been bombed and the president injured.

Immediately, the Dow crashed, losing billions of dollars of value in a second (though it quickly bounced back). It is thought that the crash was mostly due to algorithmic trading machines, programmed to monitor news feeds and react instantly to particular events, buying and selling as appropriate, hoping to gain a speed advantage over competitors.

As we move to a more algorithmic communications world and as more and more of our work is placed and created by robots, I wonder what startling new errors we’ll generate and how they’ll be magnified through interconnected networks – and how they’ll be reread and misinterpreted by more machines.

I wonder who’ll be responsible for the first billion-dollar advertising mistake?

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service           
@undermanager

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