AD Campaigns

How Major Brands Are Wasting Their Budgets On Ads

It might not come as a big surprise that major brands can suffer from huge oversight in their ad campaigns. We’ve all driven down that road in the middle of nowhere only to see a billboard showcasing the latest deals at JCPenney, with the closest store 100 miles away. But what might not be as easy to infer is the actual cost of such waste.

As a media buyer, I’ve bought ads across all the major platforms. For the last 12 years, I’ve found ads being served alongside other brands and retailers that had nothing to do with the website or audience they were being featured on. I found this to be the most common with brands who had one of two traits: either their ad budget was too big for them to notice, or they had no idea how to use ad targeting technology. In this article I will explain these oversights, how you can learn from the big guy’s mistakes, and how to avoid these mistakes with your ad campaigns.

You Get An Ad, You Get An Ad, Everyone Gets An Ad!

Having a huge ad budget isn’t the worst thing in the world, after all any publicity is good publicity, right? But where things go wrong is when the budget is being spent on advertising that does no actual good for the brand name, or even worse, actually harms the brand name. Take the below ad for example. By blanket advertising across the web with no content strategy or blocked terms, Red Stripe found themselves advertising alongside an ad about drunk driving. Even worse, the driver was a child. Ouch.

Display Ad

Red Stripe could have easily avoided this awkward situation when setting their ads live by choosing words like “drunk driver, teen, child, alcoholic, and police” as words that are excluded in their ad strategy. This would tell the DSP serving their ads that if those words are found in the text on a particular page, then the ad will not serve. Such settings are easily implemented and can be set account-wide to prevent any campaign from falling victim to this oversight. Instead, Red Stripe wasted their ad spend by choosing to target all pages without restriction.


In this next example, the above ad actually suffered from targeting that wasn’t specific enough. The advertisement most likely targeted content and videos based around law enforcement, but again without using negative keywords. Sure, the ad and the video are somewhat related, but in the worst way possible. This advertiser should have used settings that prevented the ad from appearing on videos that were violent in nature. This setting is available in Google Ads as well as most advertising platforms. Excluding a few keywords related to violence would have also saved them from this unfortunate screenshot.

I Can’t See You, My Budget Is Too Big

Not all misplaced ads are display ads. Sometimes, just having broad keyword targeting in your search campaigns causes massive amounts of wasted ad budget. Take Forbes for example. The below ad was generated by searching for the term “Oil Change.” Now I’m not the savviest mechanic, but I don’t think that is the first place I’d look for information about an oil change, especially when their ad extensions mention investment and business articles.

Search Ads

Although it is important to make sure your ads appear to as many people as possible, it is equally as important to eliminate search terms that have no connection to your brand. This can be easily accomplished by establishing a negative keyword list that is shared across all campaigns. If you’re running a campaign for a salon, for example, you will probably show up when people are searching for haircare products. Although these searches are relevant, people who are looking for products to use at home are not looking to go into a salon. Excluding keywords like “hair dye” while still keeping “hair color” may help reduce your wasted budget without eliminating your target audience.

Who’s Even Up At This Hour

The easiest way to find wasted advertising budgets is to go on Google at 3 am. Searching for terms related to businesses that are only open during normal working hours is a great place to start if you want to see wasted ad spend for yourself. Let’s say you are into martial arts and are searching for jiu-jitsu videos to entertain yourself while you snack on Cheetos in bed. If your laziness leaves out the term “videos” and you simply search “jiu-jitsu” you’ll find plenty of local martial arts schools advertising their services to people who are most likely more concerned with memes than they are learning how to fight at 3 am.

A simple way to avoid wasted ad spend during non-business hours is to set ad scheduling, also known as dayparting. By serving your ads only during business hours, you will avoid getting clicks by people who are browsing the internet for entertainment rather than for google maps directions to your business. A general rule, if you have a brick and mortar business, is to advertise one hour before you open, but end ads at the time of closing. If your business is an ecommerce website and not limited to any specific hours of operation, consider analyzing your conversion data to make sure that people buy from your website at all hours of the day. If purchases dip in the late evening, consider lowering your bids for these hours of the day to deliver more of your budget to your better-converting timeframes.

Now Delivering To A City Nowhere Near You

One of the most common mistakes made by major advertisers is the use, or misuse, of location targeting. We all wish we had a website that catered to customers worldwide, but even Amazon can’t pull off that kind of reach. Yet most major advertisers go with the standard settings provided by the advertising platform when it comes to location targeting. Google makes it really easy to spend money for clicks to people who are nowhere near your service area. This is because of a simple setting in their location targeting.

Google Ads Location Settings

The above screenshot is from Google Ads location settings. When you launch your campaign, these settings are standard. The wording is what makes this oversight so common. The targeting says “People in, or who show interest in, your targeted locations (recommended).” They even throw in the word “recommended” to basically make it even harder for someone to choose any other option. What they don’t tell you is that if someone is in Greece and is searching for your brand name or service, then they will be able to see your ad. Do you ship to Greece? Is that customer coming to the US anytime soon? I’m going to go with “no” for both answers. They simply show an “interest” and are served the ad, regardless of the fact that they will not convert.

When this setting is left the way it is, you will almost certainly spend your daily ad budget, because Google will find anyone on the planet who has somewhat of an interest in your search terms. By choosing “People in your targeted locations” and adding only the locations that you would like to serve ads in, you will force Google to only serve ads in the areas you specify, and not to randos who have no way of actually converting.

Tell Me What You Want What You Really Really Want

The last thing most major advertisers do incorrectly is conversion tracking. They simply track the end goal. A sale, a lead, a download. They don’t track the indicators that lead up to the final conversion. By tracking things like “add to cart” as a conversion, or the “learn more button” on your site that takes someone to your lead form, you can better understand what is actually affecting your ability to convert. If your ad is causing people to add products to their cart, but they aren’t buying, then maybe there is something to look at with your checkout process instead of your ad campaign. Is your shipping cost too high?

A common mistake made by most advertisers is pausing ad campaigns that aren’t leading to sales or leads without knowing if they were leading to any actionable results at all. It is important to map out every action point on the website, and pass that as events or conversions to your ad platform. In Google Ads, you can set these conversions to not count towards your main conversion goal, but to still provide conversion insights for your ad optimization efforts. That way you can keep a campaign running that shows promising results, and pause those that do not produce any conversions.

In closing, if you feel like you are spending too much on your ad campaigns and you are not getting a good bang for your buck, consider optimizing your strategy to avoid some of the common mistakes outlined in this article. By increasing efficiency, you will be able to advertise alongside brands who have much larger budgets, but who don’t adjust their spend based on the true value of the end user. This will keep you competitive even when you don’t spend the same as the big guys.

If you feel like your ad campaigns could use a second look, please reach out to us at Smashed Media. Our team of experts will gladly review your ad strategy and help you determine where you could trim the fat, and where you could add a little gravy. We look forward to helping you achieve the goals you set out for your business through our experience effectively buying inventory across all major ad networks.


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