When the ads first descended upon us, they were stiflingly ugly. Scads of them started appearing all over the Internet a little less than a year ago, each one of them claiming their territory with a purposefully garish image. Some had yellow, rotting teeth. Some had flabby stomachs, with stretchmarks Photoshopped in. They promised wholesale physical change at the click of a button. Commit to a free trial and your life will never be the same.
Life-changing? No. Wallet-shaving? Yes. Once you click, you’ve likely ensnared yourself in a murky credit-card scam. Most of these ads are feeders for fraudulent companies who promise free products but then tack on all sorts of hidden fees. When you try to call and cancel the account, oftentimes nobody picks up the phone. Thus, you’re trapped. The ads aren’t just ugly; they’re unethical.
At first I thought the ads were a temporary nuisance, a stray meme that had organically emerged. But then they didn’t fade away. And they still haven’t. They are now both the billboards and wallpaper of our digital lives — impossible to avoid, impossible to ignore. They dominate even reputable news and social networking sites — The Big Money and Slate included — with their before and after shots; tempting us to click and find out how we, too, can trim that flab and whiten those canines.
Enough is enough. It’s time to play the blame game. This is the final piece of a trilogy on the underpinnings of the Internet scam industry. As in any trilogy, the prequels — “Get Your (Not-So) Free Grant Money!” and "The Anatomy of a Web Advertising Scam" — are good primers for this piece. Now it’s time to concern ourselves with who is — or should be — responsible for this dreck. We’ve compiled a list of suspects, and using TBM’s exclusive Rot Rating system, we’ll dole out the blame. The more yellow the teeth, the guiltier the party.
It’s the recession’s fault these ads are showing up in the first place. Marquee advertisers got skittish when the recession hit, reducing their ad budgets online and everywhere else. In the print world, this means thinner magazines. In the online world, it means crappier ads.
To understand, it’s worth a crash course on Web advertising: Sites you visit have different slots where ads get served, usually at random. Some sites sell that advertising space in-house. Others outsource the ads, allowing the third party who sells the ads to take a cut of the revenue. Sites that sell advertising in-house — most of the reputable sites on the Internet, including those in the Slate family — also rely on third-party networks to deliver ads as a supplement to in-house inventory. This is the key difference between print and online advertising: Just because a site hasn’t sold an ad itself doesn’t mean it isn’t going to run an ad. On the Web, there’s essentially always inventory.
But as the elite inventory — whether first- or third-party — dries up, you start to get to the bottom of the barrel. That’s where our stomach-flattening and teeth-whitening friends came in. They are degenerates who were supposed to be locked away but, for lack of a better option, have been called into service.
The economy, then, opened the door for these eyesores to flood the Web. But it’s just the gatekeeper. It can’t be held responsible for everything that happens afterward.
Rot Rating: One yellow tooth.
We wouldn’t be seeing these ads unless there were sites giving them airtime. So are they to blame? Couldn’t they censor or block the ads, preventing them from bubbling up?
Yes. And I have a perfect case study for this kind of villainy: The Big Money. We’re as guilty as the rest of the Internet. Here’s how they got to our site: TBM (and all of our sister publications, including Slate and Washingtonpost.com) uses both in-house and third-party ads, as discussed earlier. All of TBM’s scam ads come from third-party networks — Pulse360 and AdBlade , in particular. But TBM doesn’t have a contract with these networks. We do business with a network of ad networks — because one middle man is not enough — called Rubicon. We could tell Rubicon to stop sending us Pulse360 content, but the next ad network might have similar ads. It’s this level of complexity that allows the ads to proliferate. With so many parties involved, the buck has nowhere to stop.
(Msnbc.com also uses ad networks that place these ads.)
And so we come to a philosophical question: Do sites have a responsibility not to offer their readers dangerous content shipped in from outside? I say yes. But they still have to make money, and if this is what the ad networks are serving them, how much choice do they really have? They can block a certain ad, sure, but there are so many variants of these scam ads in the networks that it’s far too arduous to block them a la carte. They need institutional help from the networks themselves.
Rot Rating: Two yellow teeth.
The ad networks
And so we come to the networks, the most irresponsible and hypocritical of our cast. Let’s take Pulse360, the ad network that serves up many of TBM’s scam ads, as another case study. I talked to Jaan Janes, the CEO of Pulse360, for an infuriating 45 minutes. My objective: figure out whether these kinds of ads comply with Pulse360’s ad guidelines. Janes repeatedly said that every ad and its corresponding site is hand-screened at Pulse360, primarily to ensure that contact information is visible on the site. But they do not call every phone number to see whether anybody actually picks up the line. (They say they do spot checks.) Logic implies that if the ads are personally screened and then end up in the network, they comply with the guidelines.
But when I sent Janes a link to a weight-loss product feeder site, he clammed up. The site is undeniably sketchy, and I found it on TBM via a Pulse360 ad. It’s a site with fake personas and dozens of links to a “free trial” product that actually costs $88.90 a month. I asked over and over again whether this was something that fit under the same ad guidelines that state “text that is not representative of the product/service being offered” is not allowed. Janes would not answer the question with a yes or no. Like a needle stuck on a record, he only repeated that if someone complained, “We have a responsibility to help the consumer and have a conversation with the advertiser about it.” He ended the conversation by saying, “The responsibility lies with the advertiser. Our responsibility is to run ads subject to our guidelines and terms and conditions.” But he still would not answer whether these ads were in compliance with the terms and conditions. Considering Pulse360 approved the ad, you would think he would say yes and stand behind the site. But no.
To be clear, Pulse360 is not the only network that does this. Even Google, the almighty “Don’t Be Evil” monolith, allows this muck to infiltrate its AdWords program. Google did not make anyone available for an on-the-record interview, even after I sent a screenshot of this kind of ads. They did, though, provide this statement by e-mail:
"All AdWords advertisers are advised to create positive and safe Internet experiences for users. Sites that are misleading, malicious, or that provide a negative user experience may be disapproved or may have a low enough Quality Score to reduce or even stop delivery of the ads. Ads that have received negative feedback and that have other indicators of low quality may receive a Quality Score that limits or prevents their delivery on the content network. Also, please see our Webmaster Guidelines Violations policy."
This was their line in April when I contacted them for a previous story on ad scams. Google is hoping the free market will naturally phase these ads out. Both Pulse360 and Google seem to care only about the wording of the ad, not about what’s on the site that it’s linking to. This has to change. Internet ads are by definition only a front for a deeper experience waiting in the wings. A display ad in a magazine is only that. On the Internet, it’s a gateway to something far more memorable. Theoretically, that’s what makes Web advertising so attractive relative to print. Therefore, the ad companies need to start crafting guidelines that are rigorous in both their standards for the ad and the site behind the ad. When they don’t, people get fooled. It may not be evil, but it is wrong.
Rot rating: Five yellow teeth.
I’ve covered these guys at length in the other two pieces of the trilogy — "The Anatomy of a Web Scam ," especially — so we’ll keep it simple. The most salient detail: The people placing the ads into the networks usually aren’t the ones selling the products. They’re taking advantage of scammers’ payback programs that kick a bit of the profits from a sale to the site that referred the unsuspecting consumer to the scam in the first place. The advertisers are essentially freelance salespeople working on commission. It’s up to them to figure out how best to get people to buy the products. Most create (or copy other) fake blogs or review sites and then advertise through ad networks. They’re the ones who seed the ad networks.
Thus they’re only peddling the scams, not carrying them out. They aren’t the cardinal bad guys — they’re the mouthpieces. That makes them a whole other kind of sleaze. But we’re trying to answer the question of who’s to blame for these ads in the first place. And certainly without the mass of advertisements — and the people creating them — this wouldn’t be an issue. But at what cost capitalism? These advertisers are making money — at least enough to keep buying the ads — but are deceiving thousands of people. They exist in a shadowy vacuum — there aren’t laws against what they’re doing nor ones forcing them to disclose their identity. Of course they’re going to test the limits and maximize profits, no matter who it hurts. That’s the point of a free market. They’re capitalizing on the parameters that a society of laws has given to them. They deserve scorn, yes. But blame? That lies with those who allow the advertisers to exist in the first place.
Rot rating: Two yellow teeth.
The people who actually sell this stuff? Often almost impossible to track them down . But the same free-market rules that apply to the advertisers also apply to the products. Why are they going to stop selling them — and stop paying salespeople to market them — if nobody’s cracking down? They’re awful people, but they’re not to blame for the loopholes that allow their very existence.
Rot rating: Three yellow teeth.
Which brings us to the Federal Trade Commission. It’s standing policy for the FTC not to comment on an investigation unless it’s closed, and when I provided links to tooth whiteners and acai berry stomach flatteners, it declined comment. It did confirm that it has not concluded any investigations into any acai berry diet products or tooth whiteners. The FTC may or may not have an investigation ongoing, but it won’t say either way. It has, though, put out a buyer-beware fact sheet on the kind of continuity payment plans that these scammers utilize. But pamphlets aren’t enough. It’s up to the FTC to do something about this, especially given how prevalent the products, feeder sites, and ads have become.
Rot rating: Four yellow teeth.
Ultimately, much of the fault lies with us. If people weren’t such suckers for this kind of self-improvement, these ads wouldn’t show up in the first place. They don’t (unethically) use Rachael Ray's and Oprah’s insignias for fun — these ads are an extension of a mythos that is successful on TV. And their ubiquity is proof that the mythos — no matter how shady — is successful online, too. That’s why so many ads are on the Internet — copycat advertisers jump into the fray to milk as much money as possible. It’s a simple relationship of supply and demand. If people stopped clicking, the ads would stop existing.
Rot Rating: Four yellow teeth.