Digital Ad Fraud, Ad-Supported Piracy, Non-Viewability: When Will Enough Be Enough?

You can’t read digital advertising news these days without running into stories about yet another problem with robotic traffic, ad fraud, non-viewable ads or ad-supported piracy. Unfortunately, it’s no longer the trades that are running these stories.

This past Sunday, The New York Times ran a big spread about the fact that half of Web video ads are not even viewable, in spite of the fact that they are being counted, billed and paid for by unsuspecting advertisers.  Today, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the front of the Marketplace section exposing how websites with pirated movies and TV content are siphoning at least a hundred million dollars of ad support from unsuspecting major national marketers like Kraft and Merck. All of this on the heels of reports, month-in and month-out, that substantial portions of the entire display and Web video impression deliveries are caused by robots, not people.

If you're an executive of a major national advertiser, you can’t be getting a lot of warm fuzzies from what you’re reading and hearing about the digital advertising industry lately.



When will folks in our industry say enough is enough, and take real action to stop and reverse this conduct, which is polluting what so many have built over so many years? Maybe it’s time for more dramatic steps. Here are some of my ideas:

Advertisers, impose real penalties. Advertisers and agencies should implement zero-tolerance policies and shut off services and networks completely for all future business opportunities when they have experienced fraud. Stop accepting that “it’s just a cat and mouse” game that can’t be solved. Demand full refunds on campaigns, not just for the fraudulent portions. Recover fees from agencies. If you stop the flow of money, you might be surprised how fast real solutions show up.

Remove artificial incentives that make folks look the other way. As has been reported in news stories over and over, one of the biggest drivers and “enabling conditions” of robotic traffic fraud is media buyers’ desire to push overall costs-per-thousand down. As easy way to cut CPMs in half is to use robots to double a site’s or network’s traffic. We need to focus more on cost-per-business-objective, not just on cheapening intermediate metrics.

Remove automated site sign-ups and replace black lists with white lists. One of the reasons that bad actor sites, such as those with pirated content, are able to get ads and payments from big brands is that networks and exchanges make it easy and automated for almost anyone to sign up and get ad tags. Exclusions typically only happen if a site is put on a black list. How about insuring that there are real people behind sites, in jurisdictions where legal recourse can be brought? Maybe even require bonding or credit ratings?

Clearly, there are a lot of folks focused on solutions. By now, there must be dozens of companies in verification, fraud protection, robotic detection, etc. However, the incidents -- and the stories -- persist. Enough is enough. Let’s get this stopped before the reputation of the digital ad industry takes even more hits. What do you think?

8 comments about "Digital Ad Fraud, Ad-Supported Piracy, Non-Viewability: When Will Enough Be Enough?".
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  1. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, May 8, 2014 at 5:54 p.m.

    Dave you are missing one important point. This is the "Click". Clicks are both the source of revenue and problems. Clicks can be virtually hidden in the digital world as to the origins. Even legit companies skirt the edges. I strongly believe and hundreds of my Fortune clients believe online advertising should take a step back to old school advertising. Meaning, go back to "Flat Rate" or "Billboard" advertising rates for online advertising. We at simply charge a flat rate based on the month and week(s) a text link sweep runs. No matter how the promotion turns out, it will be better for the sponsor/advertiser. There is never a issue with clicks. If the sponsor has low quality prizes, they will get low results. Great results for quality prizes. It is that simply, period. Further any agency can prize a campaign on the bulk to the publisher and still make a good profile. The underlining problem is extreme greed to make more than considering their clients. The other major problem you overlook is not the image banner but the link behind the banner. About 80 percent text link behind the banner is controlled by maybe 5 to 10 companies. The biggest is DoubleClick. You want Viewability? Take away the monophony on the text link held by a handful of companies and change the pricing structure.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 8, 2014 at 6:04 p.m.

    Each time a person buys a product/service, that person is contributing in part of that price to the marketing/advertising of the same. The cost of the product/service story is paid by the consumer. You point out that much of that percentage being added on to each of our expenditures is an added on expense that is going into the pockets of whom ? Who is being ripped off ? As always, follow the money. Who profits ?Back in the day, I worked for an agency that whited out the handwritten times spots for their clients ran, filled in more than ran, copied it and sent the copy to the clients and it wasn't the only agency that did it. Same plane - different toys.

  3. Chuck Lantz from, network, May 8, 2014 at 6:34 p.m.

    The author's suggestions are no-brainers that should have been in place long ago. Ad fraud hurts consumers, ad agencies and advertisers, because we all pay more - and a LOT more - to absorb the amount lost to fraud. Add to that the fact that far too many of the so-called "good guys" just shrug their shoulders and accept their losses as a part of doing business, as the author states. Merchants call it "shrinkage" and just increase retail costs to absorb it, instead of risking making the customer feel uncomfortable by installing better security. And there's the rub; ... if merchant or agency "A" tightens things up, merchant or agency "B" will stay loose and poach "A's" customers. There is no easy answer, besides cooperation. Ho-ho-ho.

  4. Matthew Ford from SwipeAds, May 8, 2014 at 9:20 p.m.

    This company is doing really interesting things to guarantee engagement. Advertisers only pay upon proof that a real human being has actively looked at and engaged with the ad. It's a little game that only humans can finish. Bots can't do it and abusers won't find it economical to spend the human power to abuse it. Search for "SwipeAds" on LinkedIn. If links are allowed here, see

  5. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, May 9, 2014 at 6:02 a.m.

    Needs a sense of proportion. This is a big problem (about 50% of the market): "half of Web video ads are not even viewable, in spite of the fact that they are being counted, billed and paid for by unsuspecting advertisers". This is a little problem (less then 1% of the market): "websites with pirated movies and TV content are siphoning at least a hundred million dollars of ad support".

  6. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, May 9, 2014 at 4:57 p.m.

    P.T. Barnum was right -- there is one (at least one) born every minute!

  7. John Szczygiel from Bell Canada, May 12, 2014 at 11:42 a.m.


    You are one of the smartest folks in the business.

    However , I am not sure that Advertisers and agencies could implement zero-tolerance policies and shut off services and networks completely for all future business opportunities when they have experienced fraud.

    Example – If an agency shut off The Google exchange as a supplier .. the agency it would then have cut off access to over half the available inventory?

    It may be that the folks at Google etc need to lead the way here?

  8. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, May 13, 2014 at 6:10 a.m.

    John, I agree that it will be very hard for large advertisers to cut off a major supplier (like Google Exchange, for instance) for fraudulent traffic. But, if they don't, who will? If a consumer goods company learns that one of their supplies is regularly selling them faulty or fraudulent goods, they warn them, story paying them and then shut them off. Digital marketers need to do the same. There is precedent in media. In the 1960's, radio in the US was shut off by a number of the largest advertisers after it was learned that some companies were falsifying their ad logs.

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