Alongside all the positive benefits of the internet, there is a negative dark side lurking in the background, full of illegal activities and deceptions taking place on websites. Many of these illegal websites are outside the US and operate without any rules or social morals, and what’s alarming is that they continue to be funded and legitimized by the unintended actions of good advertisers.
Thousands of these so-called “rogue” sites—which traffic stolen content, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, pornography and other illegal or illicit subject matter—have malware and expose consumers to scams and other risks. While some progress has been made in combating these sites, permanently shutting down even the most egregious ones is difficult. It’s a widespread and growing problem for all players responsible for creating, producing, monetizing, distributing and safeguarding digital content.
Rogue websites are particularly problematic for marketers that rely on digital advertising to promote their brands, and can lead to a potentially damaging proposition. A recent report found that over 7.7 billion display ads are served on websites that could damage a brand’s reputation, and if a consumer is exposed to advertising on an illegal site or alongside illicit content, then that consumers’ perception of a brand could be forever tarnished. As they say, you are often judged by the company you keep, and if a brand is in the wrong place, it could cause irreparable damage, whether the brand meant to place the ad there or not.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something that only affects a few brands. The most recent Ad Transparency Report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab reports that ads from major, well-known brands such as Allstate, AT&T, Southwest Airlines and Visa have appeared on illegal file-sharing sites. These are venerable, iconic brands, known for the care they take and the investment they make to craft exactly the kind of reputation they want. So why are their ads showing up on these illegal sites, sitting alongside pirated content, scams and malware, as if they support the practice?
In many cases, brands make use of ad networks and exchanges run by agencies, publishers or others to place ads. Brands often abdicate control over ad placement in favor of vast reach, and it’s sometimes not possible for marketers to know where their ads are being placed, because ad networks, often blind, resell inventory to one another without the advertisers’ knowledge.
The good news is that much of these practices can be preventable. In fact, a recent initiative from the UK Police Intellectual Crime Unit targeted websites known to illegally provide access to copyrighted content, and in just three months, decreased advertising from well-known brands by 12 percent. Once this happened, the websites needed to replace the revenue by turning to ads that led consumers to explicit content, and these “negative ads” increased by 39 percent. What this shows is that when the large brands leave, bad advertisers come in, damaging the credibility of the host site, and making them a less appealing destination for consumers.
While this is great progress, what can the advertisers themselves do to protect their brands from association with illegal content and rogue websites?
First, make sure that any ad network partners have true network quality assurances and policies in place. The network should be the first point of protection for a brand, and they should know which sites engage in substantial copyright infringement and keep ads—and ad money—away from them. To do so requires vigilance across the board—on the part of brands, agencies, ad networks, content creators and industry associations setting standards and best practices. These groups must work together to protect both content and advertising dollars and cease support of these illegal efforts. As I mentioned above, if you cut off the revenue from the large brands, you challenge the business models of the bad websites.
Increased cooperation among the demand and supply side players of the digital advertising ecosystem can also help end this problem. A decrease in online advertising would have a ripple effect, so it is critical that these groups work together to address the issue and help ensure the continued growth of digital advertising among legitimate players in the marketplace.
Advertisers should ensure that their intermediaries commit to use, and/or enable their customers to use, commercially available services that provide dynamically-updated risk scores or ratings regarding infringing sites. This is particularly important in the context of “daisy chain” transactions in which intermediaries are handing off unfilled ad placements or acquiring unsold ad inventory or impressions from another intermediary
The growing problem of rogue websites offers an opportunity for content creators, brands and the advertising industry to partner in ways that can help put an end to this growing problem. In addition to what advertisers and agencies can begin to do individually, lessons can be learned on what works best, and we can establish best practices for monitoring what ads are being placed on what websites, and form a consensus throughout the digital advertising community to use standard reporting and filtering and scoring practices.
Illegal websites threaten content owners with piracy, site visitors with exposure to malware and potential identity theft and brands with potentially irreversible damage to their reputations. Marketers spend years—even decades—and millions of dollars establishing and polishing the reputations of their brands and gaining the trust of consumers. Exposure on rogue websites can wipe all of that out in an instant. This brand-supported piracy must stop, for the sake of everyone involved.