If you want to take something good and make it less good, there's no more reliable method than to chop it up into tiny bits and then recombine them. A door made of particleboard isn't as strong as one made of solid pine. An MP3 of a song lacks the sonic richness of a high-fidelity record. A hamburger may or may not be as delicious as a rib-eye, depending on your personal taste, but it's definitely likelier to contain fecal bacteria and pink slime.

The global advertising industry is currently experiencing its own version of food poisoning from tainted ground beef. Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, and AT&T are among the giant marketers that have stopped buying ad space on Google's ad network and on YouTube in response to reports of ads appearing alongside hate speech, ISIS recruiting propaganda, and other objectionable content. Racing to contain the boycott, Google issued an apology on Tuesday and said it is taking steps to ensure greater "brand safety" in the future. Those steps include "taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content," changing the default settings for ad campaigns, and giving marketers new controls allowing them to exclude specific websites or types of content from their campaigns.

"We'll be hiring significant numbers of people and developing new tools powered by our latest advancements in AI and machine learning to increase our capacity to review questionable content for advertising," Google's chief business officer, Philipp Schindler, wrote in a blog post.

But Schindler was also careful to note the major constraint on Google's ability to give advertisers the degree of brand safety they'd like: the sheer volume of content Google places ads against. "Thousands of sites are added every day to our ad network, and more than 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute," he said.

In essence, he was saying: We absolutely can and will reduce the amount of bacteria in the hamburgers. Just don't expect us to reduce it to zero, because that's impossible.

There's more than an element of Captain Renault's shock to the boycott. Over the past decade, Google and Facebook have become an effective duopoly in digital advertising by disintermediating content creators and disaggregating their audiences. Why pay premium ad rates to reach the 80 million people who read The New York Times in some form when you can advertise to 80 million demographically identical consumers at a far lower cost on ad networks?

The rise of "programmatic advertising," which uses software to buy and sell ad inventory across the Web in real-time exchanges, was premised on the idea that what matters is the eyeballs themselves, not the context in which they're encountered. But if advertisers don't care about context and content as much as they used to, they still care very much about getting called out by consumer pressure groups like Sleeping Giants for appearing to sponsor hateful or controversial causes. Hence "brand safety."

The safest thing for brands would be to eschew programmatic buying altogether and go back to the old model of advertising in which they actually knew where their marketing messages appeared. This is not an altogether crazy idea. In restaurants now, it's increasingly common for menus to list not just ingredients but the specific farms or producers of those ingredients. This phenomenon isn't limited to fine dining; even some fast-casual chains like Sweetgreen do it.

Consumers, it seems, are growing wise to the idea that it's good to know exactly what you're paying for. When it looks like technology is making something cheaper, it's often only because its ability to chop things up into tiny pieces and reassemble them in new configurations is a great way to hide questionable additives, whether they're YouTube's jihadist recruiting videos, Uber's questionable labor practices, or the pink slime in your hamburger. There are no bargains. It's just a matter of what you're willing to ignore.

Published on: Mar 24, 2017