Free is Bad, a book by John Marshall, articulates “How The Free Web Hurt Privacy, Truth and Democracy.” That is an accurate description of what happened in the last 25 years; the ad supported Internet happened. The original idea of the Internet was a noble one — a place where everyone could access the sum total of all human knowledge at any time for free. But the advertising business model and human greed led it down a path of depravity, the depths of which cannot even be adequately captured by the nine levels of hell from Dante’s Inferno.
A Noble Idea That Went to Hell, Literally
How did this happen? It started simply enough. The earliest websites adopted the advertising-supported-content business model from television and print advertising — where users got content for free, in exchange for seeing ads. Advertisers paid the content creators for the space (pages in print) and time (ad slots on TV shows) to show ads to human audiences who gathered around the content. But after the initial “hockey-stick-like” growth of digital advertising, the rate slowed because we reached the limits of the numbers of humans on earth who could go online and the amount of time those humans could spend consuming media and using their devices.
This was not good enough to satisfy the famous Silicon Valley greed and their need to continue to justify the hockey stick projections they wrote into powerpoint presentations to support irrational company valuations. So they started to make sh*t up — like lookalike audiences, behavioral targeting, hypertargeting, long-tail websites, etc. This way, the ad tech companies had more things to sell to advertisers and make more revenues, despite the fact that the numbers of humans and the hours of their daily lives were already tapped out. This is when things really went to hell, literally.
Greed, Fraud, Treachery — Leading Lower and Lower
The belief that at-scale audiences could be found visiting millions of never-before-seen long-tail sites led to the proliferation of ad exchanges. These ad tech companies used technology to aggregate millions of sites, enable advertisers to buy ads in one place (from them), and then distribute the ads to millions of sites, sight unseen. This act of dissociating the ad buyer (advertiser) from the ad space seller (publisher) eliminated the common sense checks-and-balances that were in place previously — if the publisher of the website looked shady, don’t buy ads from them. Now with tens of millions of sites and mobile apps carrying digital ads, few even bother to check if they were shady, fraudulent, or outright fake.
As big advertisers continued to shift money from TV, print, radio and billboard advertising into digital, we witnessed more and more cases of their ad dollars flowing to porn sites or worse, unbeknownst to the advertisers. See: This Leaked Document Shows How Big Brands’ Ad Budgets Get Spent On Asian Porn Sites (2013). The porn sites were free, and they were ad supported. Specifically they were supported by the ad dollars of major advertisers. Before you say or think “this doesn’t happen to my ad dollars” consider the fact that even to this day, advertisers spending millions of dollars on digital ads don’t even get detailed placement reports, which show the sites and apps where their ads were displayed. Don’t believe me? Read this: Advertisers Are Not Even Receiving Detailed Placement Reports, or Those Reports Are Falsified or Fabricated by Fraudsters.
This problem is as pernicious as it is pervasive.
It’s not just an “oopsies” that some ads end up on porn, hate, disinfo, and fake news sites. It’s the systematic cover-up and falsification of where ads ran and where clicks came from. The Global Disinformation Index publishes monthly research decks showing mainstream advertisers’ ads screenshotted on disinformation sites. How? The simple techniques used by these sites to disguise themselves have worked for years and continue to work: redirecting urls through multiple layers to obfuscate referrers (where the click came from), loading entire webpages in hidden iframes, invisible windows, and popunders, or altering click urls and tracking urls to make it appear the adsand clicks came from legitimate sites.
If your media agency and the ad tech vendors they pay for, don’t give you line-by-line, detailed placement reports with domains and apps listed, why not? What are they hiding? If some of those line items are listed as “unknown” or “not measured,” why? Are you sure your ads didn’t go on bad sites and apps? See the following screenshot from a report by Adbug, with hundreds of screen shots of brand advertiser ads on large varieties of asian porn sites.
Even Mainstream Sites Like YouTube, Ads In Shady “Neighborhoods”
And it’s not just porn sites, it’s mainstream sites like YouTube, with shady neighborhoods. Why does this keep happening? Big advertisers seem to have short memories.
In 2017, Major Advertisers Pulled Their Ads From YouTube “JPMorgan Chase, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, and Lyft were some of the big brands that said they were pulling ads.”
In 2018, YouTube ran ads from hundreds of brands on extremist channels; “Ads from over 300 companies and organizations — including tech giants, major retailers, newspapers and government agencies — ran on YouTube channels promoting white nationalists, Nazis, pedophilia, conspiracy theories and North Korean propaganda, a CNN investigation has found.”
In 2019, Disney, AT&T, Nestle, Epic Games drop YouTube ads “after a blogger detailed how comments on Google’s video site were being used to facilitate a “soft-core pedophilia ring.”
In 2020, a Redditor noticed major brand ads appearing on “yoga porn” despite advertisers spending millions of dollars on “brand safety” technologies that were supposed to prevent that from happening (screen shot below).
screen shot from reddit/adops
Do worry; it gets worse.
Sites offering free child abuse images and videos have proliferated because they are able to make money via digital advertising. Mobile apps that make it easy for pedophiles to find this material are ad supported. Google, Microsoft, and Facebook technology enabled ad dollars from advertisers to flow to these sites and apps. See three documented examples in the slide below.
TechCrunchGoogle & Facebook fed ad dollars to child porn discovery apps TechCrunchMicrosoft Bing not only shows child sexual abuse, it suggests it The DrumGovernment launches investigation into brands advertising on child abuse sites
The billions of ad dollars flowing into digital advertising may not be doing any advertising at all; those dollars may be funding evil at a scale never before possible. Marketers should turn off their programmatic digital ad spending until the ad tech vendors can prove to you with detailed data that your ads are not supporting evil. At the very least, marketers should consider it their moral duty to take a closer look at their own digital ad spending via programmatic channels to see if their dollars are funding disinformation, hate speech, fake news, porn, and child abuse.
Any dollar that goes to these sites and apps is a dollar too much. Dante’s Circles of Hell only had nine circles. Even a tenth circle of hell would not be enough to punish those who know this evil persists, but choose to do nothing.