The Downward Spiral of Deceptive Ads

As online publishers come under increasing financial pressure, too-good-to-be-true money from schlocky partners will disappear quickly

I was surprised at how many people read my post about mobile video ad experiences that don’t respect the user’s bandwidth bill (“The Mobile Video Ad Lie”).

With adblocking on the rise on desktop and mobile (notably expected on mobile with iOS 9's ‘content-blocking’ features) and the increasingly fraught online advertising environment that is online video and display ads outside of the Big Three (Google, Facebook, Twitter) web publishers are getting increasingly desperate t0 monetize their traffic. They continue to open themselves up to advertising networks that can guarantee high payouts to them on a cost-per-thousand-impression (CPM) basis.

Who, you may ask, can guarantee high payouts/CPMs? Two kinds of entities: 1) those companies with premium high-priced ad products, captive data marketplaces and high ad standards with huge scale and volume (increasingly this will be only the aforementioned Big Three if they widely offer their own ad networks, with perhaps a few other large players like AOL/Verizon), and 2) Advertising Cheaters.

Advertising Cheaters” are very simply either:

  • Those who show multiple ads knowingly hidden from user view, or who benefit by allowing others to do so, or,
  • Those showing ads for products that are clearly deceiving users with bold or impossible claims, or employing nakedly deceptive marketing tactics. These often lead to negative-option credit card billing offers that are difficult to cancel and where each ‘conversion’ is insanely profitable for the “advertiser”

You can recognize these tactics when publishers make more money than they rationally should from these ad spaces

On September 1st, I picked ads I saw on my iPhone on the International Business Times (ibtimes.com) site at random, but there are plenty of other publishers working with “content partners” who peddle third-party advertising as if it’s information that is valuable to an end user. Taboola and Outbrain are probably the most reputable of this wave of companies, and even they have publicly admitted that a lot of the content they run in their “content recommendation widgets” is fake or spammy, and in some instances they have dialed these advertisers down at the cost of their own profits. IBTimes uses a company called content.ad (whose about page does not have any names of the principals involved).

Perhaps you recognize the photos used in these kinds of “From Around the Web” Sponsored thingies:

Don’t be fooled by the little banner at the bottom of the screen. That’s earning IBTimes almost nothing compared to those four image+text ads above.

She Was Divorced For Being Too Old?

Clicking on this ad transports the user to “hollywoodlifenews.com” — where, despite the deceptively named site, a clear advertorial warning is placed at the top of the screen to warn everyone that this is not a pure editorial, but also an ad, and one that has apparently featured in Yahoo!, Woman’s Day, Vanity Fair, Time, People and AOL!

Apparently this advertorial has featured in many top publications

Thankfully though, if we read ALL the way to the end, we see that we’re not really seeing actual news, a blog article or even a consumer protection update (another favorite tactic not seen here is to present fake negative reviews of products and very subtly link to the product they’re trying to promote).

“The story depicted on this site and the person depicted in the story are not real unless stated otherwise.”

I didn’t capture the exact URL that this site uses to send their prey to, but what I did notice is they are employing a very clever misdirection technique: their name is very close to hollywoodlife.com which is an actual entertainment website. They send anyone who visits hollywoodlifenews.com (the base URL) to hollywoodlife.com, and mask the URL — thereby making someone who might have second thoughts about what they saw and returns (not having saved the exact URL) see real content and probably feel stupid for not being able to find the “ad” again.

These ads are trying so very hard to be seen as content.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken action multiple times over the last 5 years against these kinds of fake news/blog sites, and yet they not only persist, but are driving (what must be) a meaningful amount of the revenue keeping online publishers afloat. Publishers who also clearly must be aware of the dross they are promoting on their site.

Khloe Kardashian’s Weight Loss 2015

We again have the URL that sounds like a news/information website, “healthylifestylestrends.com” whose base URL redirects you to lifeandhealth.org while keeping their URL in the address bar. The “article” is an Exclusive in big red letters, and they talk about their writer dropping 22lbs in 30 days. They do, however, have a few other even more devious tactics to drive it home. The first is they simply pretend to be The Huffington Post! The Huffpost header persists as you scroll down through the offer.

Think Fake News Sites Don’t Work? You’re wrong!

As you HuffPost your way lower down, they even have pre-made fake Facebook comments to help convince you that this is all real.

Only 15 comments? Hardly trying.

The #1 Rated Eyelash Enhancer

By now the pattern should be familiar especially on a mobile website.

  1. Newsy URL: “dailyregionalpost.com”
  2. Half-hearted ‘advertorial’ label
  3. “Featured in” logo bar with a bunch of logos (same ones, often)
  4. Byline, date, other news-site props
  5. Base URL redirects to a real website (this one actually just goes to cnet.com without any masking or other fakery)

Many of the tactics are simply copied from one offer website to the next. URLs that almost look like news site URLs are cheap and easy to buy, and “content recommendation” ad schlock-networks like content.ad seem to have an incredibly low bar for allowing these offers on board. Their website even warns prospective publishers ‘NOTE: Limiting the types of ads that can appear in your widget can dramatically reduce its profitability.’

If publishers are not afraid of limiting their earning potential, they could theoretically block from amongst these quite uninspiring CONTENT verticals that read like a whats-what of human misery:

Ever-helpful support can handle this for you!

A final legal note also, that while we don’t know the exact terms of the deals the parties strike, if publishers are simply accepting the network’s standard, online-published terms of use, they should be aware that partners like content.ad indemnify themselves from all damages that could arise from any consumer harm resulting from these deceptive ads.

The FTC has been known to go after individuals’ personal assets as well in egregious online consumer protection cases.

Publishers have built businesses and hired journalists based on an expectation that these suspect ad revenues are going to continue. I cannot see any scenario in which they can.

This is not the first wave of these companies: one of this category’s pioneers is the now-defunct Pulse 360 which worked with top publishers including MSNBC.com, CNN.com, Abcnews.com, Cox Media and USAToday, and shut down in 2013 after involvement in FTC actions against one of the weight-loss scammer companies.

In reality some of the unfortunate, miserable and desperate people falling for these deceptive ads are probably slightly less likely to be the same (more affluent and sophisticated) ones blocking their ads already on the desktop and soon-to-be on iOS 9. So maybe that buys publishers a bit more time.

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