Increasingly, digital ad viewers aren’t human. A study done last year in conjunction with the Association of National Advertisers embedded billions of digital ads with code designed to determine who or what was seeing them. Eleven percent of display ads and almost a quarter of video ads were “viewed” by software, not people. According to the ANA study, which was conducted by the security firm White Ops and is titled The Bot Baseline: Fraud In Digital Advertising, fake traffic will cost advertisers $6.3 billion this year. ... Fake traffic has become a commodity. There’s malware for generating it and brokers who sell it. Some companies pay for it intentionally, some accidentally, and some prefer not to ask where their traffic comes from. It’s given rise to an industry of countermeasures, which inspire counter-countermeasures. ... All a budding media mogul—whether a website operator or a traffic supplier—has to do to make money is arbitrage: Buy low, sell high. The art is making the fake traffic look real, often by sprucing up websites with just enough content to make them appear authentic. Programmatic ad-buying systems don’t necessarily differentiate between real users and bots, or between websites with fresh, original work, and Potemkin sites camouflaged with stock photos and cut-and-paste articles.
American Apparel launched in 1988 as a T-shirt business that founder and former CEO Dov Charney ran out of his dorm room at Tufts University. After Charney opened his first retail store, on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard in 2003, the brand quickly became a phenomenon, famous for its local, sweatshop-free manufacturing and notorious for its sexually charged advertising. ... As it became a public company in 2007 (through a reverse merger), American Apparel had 143 stores in 11 countries and was valued at nearly a billion dollars. ... It wasn’t just the merchandise that set the company apart. From the beginning, American Apparel eschewed fast fashion (the practice of copying new runway trends immediately and cheaply) in favor of generating its own iconoclastic staples. Instead of outsourcing manufacturing to low-wage overseas workers, it produced almost everything it sold for wholesale and retail in its own factory in Los Angeles ... Production and design now follow a strict calendar, set by Schneider. "You have to have your raw materials where they’re supposed to be, your bundling down, your product cut up and ready to sew—there are a thousand steps that go into making this run smoothly," Schneider says. "And it’s more complicated [at American Apparel] because you’re knitting your own yarn, you’re dyeing your own fabric, and you’re manufacturing everything here and shipping everything yourself." In part, as a result, niche items that fall outside of American Apparel’s knit-production expertise—sweaters, denim—are now being outsourced to other factories around Los Angeles.
There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of influencers making a living this way. Some make a lot more than a living. The most successful demand $10,000 and up for a single Instagram shot. Long-term endorsement deals with well-known Instagrammers, such as Kristina Bazan, who signed with L’Oréal last year, can be worth $1 million or more. Big retailers use influencers, as do fashion brands, food and beverage companies, and media conglomerates. Condé Nast, publisher of the New Yorker and Vogue, recently announced that it would ask IBM’s artificial intelligence service, Watson, to take a break from finding cancer treatments to identify potential influencers. ... The ultimate goal: to persuade someone, somewhere, to pay me cash money for my influence. ... “You sell part of your soul. Because no matter what beautiful moment you enjoy in your life, you’re going to want to take a photo and share it. Distinguishing between when is it my life and when am I creating content is a really big burden.” ... Instagram doesn’t explicitly ban bots, but its terms of service do prohibit sending spam, which, when viewed in a certain light, is exactly what I was doing. On the other hand, except for a single user who somehow had me pegged and accused me of being a bot, nobody with whom I interacted seemed to mind the extra likes or comments. ... I was already verging into “micro-influencer” territory, a hot new field within influencer marketing where, rather than hiring one or two big-time influencers, an ad agency will simply give out free merchandise to 50 small-timers.
Why do people like what they like? It is one of the oldest questions of philosophy and aesthetics. Ancient thinkers inclined to mysticism proposed that a “golden ratio”—about 1.62 to 1, as in, for instance, the dimensions of a rectangle—could explain the visual perfection of objects like sunflowers and Greek temples. Other thinkers were deeply skeptical: David Hume, the 18th-century philosopher, considered the search for formulas to be absurd, because the perception of beauty was purely subjective, residing in individuals, not in the fabric of the universe. “To seek the real beauty, or real deformity,” he said, “is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.” ... Over time, science took up the mystery. In the 1960s, the psychologist Robert Zajonc conducted a series of experiments where he showed subjects nonsense words, random shapes, and Chinese-like characters and asked them which they preferred. In study after study, people reliably gravitated toward the words and shapes they’d seen the most. Their preference was for familiarity. ... This discovery was known as the “mere-exposure effect,” and it is one of the sturdiest findings in modern psychology. ... People get tired of even their favorite songs and movies. They develop deep skepticism about overfamiliar buzzwords. ... A surprise seems to work best when it contains some element of familiarity. ... On the one hand, Hekkert told me, humans seek familiarity, because it makes them feel safe. On the other hand, people are charged by the thrill of a challenge, powered by a pioneer lust. This battle between familiarity and discovery affects us “on every level,” Hekkert says—not just our preferences for pictures and songs, but also our preferences for ideas and even people. ... The power of these eureka moments isn’t bound to arts and culture. It’s a force in the academic world as well. Scientists and philosophers are exquisitely sensitive to the advantage of ideas that already enjoy broad familiarity.
The brothers oversee an enviable collection of businesses — a movie studio, cable channels and a publishing house worth a combined $62bn. But that does not mean they have nothing to worry about. Their newspapers have been walloped by an industry-wide collapse in print advertising, while Fox’s television networks are grappling with the “cord-cutting” phenomenon — the cancellation of pricey cable subscriptions by a generation that prefers binge-watching on demand. For owners of channels such as Fox that means fewer viewers and pressure on advertising. ... The competition is also beefing up. Time Warner, one of Fox’s main rivals and the owner of HBO, CNN and Warner Bros, has agreed a blockbuster $85.4bn sale to AT&T, which will create a giant that dwarfs Fox. If it is cleared by regulators, the combined company will be able to deliver Time Warner movies and TV programming direct to more than 160 million AT&T customers around the US — something Fox is currently unable to do. ... Add these challenges to the scrutiny and opposition that their Sky deal will generate and the younger Murdochs find themselves in a challenging environment. Their father overcame considerable obstacles to become the world’s most influential media mogul, battling political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic and making risky bets along the way, buying The Sun, launching Sky and Fox News, to name but three. The question now facing James and Lachlan is this: do they have what it takes to fill his shoes?
In the final weeks of the US presidential election, Veles attained a weird infamy in the most powerful nation on earth; stories in The Guardian and on BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. ... The sites’ ample traffic was rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense. ... Within Veles itself, the young entrepreneurs behind these websites became subjects of tantalizing intrigue. Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371. ... It was once a town of modest glory, turning out revolutionaries and intellectuals and alive with industry. One of its largest factories, a ceramic works named Porcelanka, employed 4,000 people. For a time, its residents recall with perverse pride, Veles was the second-most polluted town in the former Yugoslavia.