Beware Celebrity “Ads”

This article first appeared on (12/12/2015).

Today, on the front page of Yahoo, a fake news article ad ran using Robert Downey, Jr.’s likeness (red box below), and pointed to a fake version of the Discovery Channel website (“”). The site then also included fake endorsements from Roger Federer, Tom Cruise and Daniel Craig.


Recently, I saw a fake news story “ad” on Facebook using the likeness of The Rock, and a fake version of the TMZ website, that I pointed out to him. He correctly pointed out:

These scammers hide behind anonymous domains and half-witted affiliates, but honestly, any somewhat-skeptical ad operations person should be able to immediately see and shut down something like this very quickly before it ever sees millions of users. And yet it persists. Click rates for these fake stories are incredibly high.

The online ad industry’s incentives are totally screwed up, and it leads to the kinds of deceptive dreck that profilerates everywhere today. I have helped the Federal Trade Commission in the past before, and I am happy to assist them in understanding the new reality of online consumer deception. I hope they’ll reach out, but in the meantime, here’s a few things that I believe the industry owes consumers:

  • To know the identity of the advertiser. This seems stupid, trivial, and yet it is a fundamental problem. There needs to be a central registry of advertisers including physical addresses (nobody should be able to run JavaScript on a website from an anonymously-registered domain), and any “agency” relationships need to be documented and binding. Any technology an advertiser/agency is allowed to use to serve videos, ads or pixels needs to be associated with their account.
  • No malware, popups, adware. A lot of this is a result of ad networks and exchanges working with advertisers they don’t really know. What should be added is a three-strikes/appeal process for all providers including analytics companies who are associated with such ads. They should be forced to disclose the identities of all entities they contracted with — who should all be on the advertiser or tech provider lists anyway.
  • Universal adserver/analytics provider approval. Not just anybody should be able to serve code on a website but nor should new tech companies need to go through dozens of separate approval processes with networks, exchanges and publishers to do so. Centralize and streamline this process and tie adserver account identifiers to advertisers and agencies so that they’re easily identified if something goes wrong.
  • No more than 3 pages of retargeted ads, over one week, period. Retargeting is useful to remind users to come back and finish a registration or buy something from their shopping cart but after a while it gets annoying, and that timeframe continues to shrink. Ideally this would just be three ads total, but sometimes there are technical reasons making this difficult (but see next point — we’ll have fewer ads per page anyway!). But once that week is over, no more creepy ads following me around please.
  • No more than 3 ads visible on a page. Mentioned in my article here — this may actually be long-term a lot better for publishers and advertiser ad performance. Fake content stories count as ads (one for each story) by the way!
  • Know what data was used to target this ad. Why did I see it? Which data providers and why — provider identities and human-readable reasons please! (Eg “Anon user purchased ‘Colored Socks’ assortment. User provided email address (see) at Macy’s checkout Palo Alto, CA on 3/16/14. No other data appends. Facebook Custom Audiences uploaded 7/30/15”). Indicate if my data was used anonymous or tied to any identifier, which I can also see.
  • The ability to see, delete or change the data non-merchants have about me. The natural follow on from (6) above — I should be able to correct problematic data or just get rid of it. Merchants who sell stuff to me should also show me what data they have but they need longer time periods/rules for keeping it, I won’t address those here.
  • A transparent whitelist/blacklist for advertisers I can always see and change. This should help advertisers and save them money when their presence otherwise would cause consternation (even though for me this applies mostly to airlines, it’s more broadly useful I am sure!). Newer platforms like Facebook or Twitter let you report or block ads or advertisers but they don’t provide a history that the user can see — yet.
  • Correct labeling. “From around the web” is nonsensical — these are ads dressed up as content, and should be labeled as advertising.
  • Rate ads as a consumer (optionally) to give feedback to both websites and advertisers. The consumer doesn’t have to but will over time if it’s easy to do and they know the data are actually being used to improve their experience. It’s important that the feedback is visible to thepublisher as well so they can assess if a particular ad or advertiser is negatively affecting their audience and take action — often this creates longer-term problems in a world of competitive (sometimes commodity) media.
  • Devote 10–20% of ad space to soliciting feedback. Show the user that their voice matters, and that they have the ability to take control of their data. Convey how important this is to a well-functioning ecosystem. This space inside ad units can also serve as the path to seeing all the other data the ad system has about them including a history of the ads they’ve seen, and the ability to report “bad ads”. Those silly little “AdChoices” icons are a joke which most consumers don’t get, as multiple non-industry-funded studies have shown. Also, they only allow opting-out and won’t really improve the marketplace as the above suggestions can.
  • Different fonts, voices for ads vs. content. In addition to correctly labeling something as an ad (the feedback widget can be helpful in this regard too!), the practices that some “native advertising” adopt in using the same writers, voice/screen talent and typefaces should be modulated so as to not overtly deceive the consumer.


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