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We need to talk about online advertising

We are getting very used to seeing obvious lies in advertising on reputable websites.

This worries me.

It’s much more serious than mere “clickbait”.

Some of the biggest lies are the ones which use your IP address to guess your city or country. This started out on more “disreputable” sites, where I would see adverts that “Women in Reading want to meet for sex”. Which was odd, as I was in Southampton, but my ISP was giving me IP addresses coded to Reading. It’s clearly a lie, but we accept it, and that acceptance is risky.

These days most websites don’t sell their own advertising, they use companies like Outbrain or Taboola to provide the adverts. The adverts you see are custom to you, based on both location and your own browsing history.

Advert in context on the page

If the Telegraph newspaper carries an advert that has a lie in, it’s relatively easy to complain about. However if the Telegraph website carries a false advert, who’s responsible? The advertiser? The telegraph? The advertising platform? There’s no guarantee these are in the UK, and it’s not clear who’s responsible.

The most alarming advert I’ve seen is one for a “tactical flashlight” which has the text something like “Police in Southampton recommend everyone carries one of these”.

Close up of the advert which appeared on the Telegraph website (also Daily Echo)

It links to a fake news article with $cityname in the URL to tell me that there’s been a rise in violent crime in $cityname and hence the police say you should buy the product. This is beyond immoral, it’s dangerous and almost certainly illegal. The fact that this advert still appears in various forms scares the hell out of me. The fact that some newspapers now muddle the advertising with the “other stories on this site” makes it harder to evaluate the source of information.

Seemingly “legit” news articles as advertising

If you visit “disreputable” parts of the web (porn, piracy etc.) you will get very used to popunders advertising a mix of sex sites, gambling, malware and financial scams (“The Brit Method”) etc. What I’ve noticed in my “research” looking at such sites, is that sometimes the pop-under window is just a news site with a story on. What the hell is going on there? Why is trying to open innocuous windows on my browser with random stories from their site… are they hoping that getting it in my eyeline will get some social media links? I don’t know.

Your filter might be racist

There’s been some worrying reports of some of the targetted advertising on Facebook being used to offer something only to certain communities. Or target political messages at certain ethnic groups. Also, remember, that location can be a proxy for race. If you’ve rough data on where different races live, filtering by postcode or even town can be quite creepy. Adverts don’t tell you “You are seeing this because you live in the white middle class part of your city”.

It’s a trap

Some online advertising is for flat out scams. The “get rich quick scheme” is alive and well in 2017. The first image on this page is a good example, but I’ve hit reload a bunch of times trying to find one today and for some reason can’t.

What I did find is which looks like an interesting tool which tracks online adverts and what sites are showing them.

Here’s a nice example of a site with the hallmarks of a scam (fake comments, fake location heading). For fun I’ve linked to it with $cityname. I found this from an advert on a website for sport.

Possible remedies for issues with online advertising

I’ve been trying to think what to do about this. What should lawmakers, ISPs and media be doing?

First of all, lets put “out of scope ” the ads on on “disreputable” sites, they have no license or “good name” to threaten.

But what can we do about ads on Wired, the Telegraph, or the Daily Echo (our local paper).

Idea one: Advert identification codes

Every unique advert shown on a website should be assigned a unique code for that website or advertising platform. This would let people complain about something more concrete, rather than something entirely ephemeral.

Idea two: Personal advertisement log

A user should be able to click a link near the advert to get a list of every advert they have been shown from this source (website or ad platform) for the past N days. N negotiable, but I’d suggest 90 days minimum. Each advert in this review will also tell them the data used to make the decision to show this advert. Actually this would be nice anyway. Do you ever see a really cool ad on Facebook and then a window pops up over it and by the time you sort that the advert is gone forever. Every instance of every advert should have a unique URL which is visible to anybody.

Idea three: Public advertisement log

This is more hardcore; but I think that EVERY advert shown to EVERY user in the past X days, along with the logic used to create/show it, should be made available to the public.

Idea four: Sort out how to complain and escalate complaints

Who should be held responsible when I visit a site of a UK company, hosted in Germany, using a USA advertising platform showing an advert for a Chinese company? This is tough, and I just don’t know, but we need to find a solution for this questions.

Right now, it’s too easy for a local news site to wash their hands and take no responsibility for the bad behaviour of the advertising platform they use. The best idea I have is that a UK standards agency could ban the use of non-compliant advertising platforms by UK companies.

Problems with these suggestions

Advertisement 72B0391CF0F shown because: Viewer in UK & Viewer searched for “Impotence cure”

It’s very hard to define who a user is in a way that requires them to be able to see their advertising history, even though we know that these companies know exactly who we are… If I search for something on the John Lewis website I see related adverts on other sites the next day.

Another issue is that an advert could be made to contain information that could not be made public because it contained identifiable personal information. If the advert image contained the target viewer’s real name, then you couldn’t publish it to the public along with the reasons it was shown. This could be used as an excuse not to make it public, and “people want personalised adverts” would be an excuse to make it impossible to disclose adverts without breaching someone’s privacy.


The above is based on my own experience browsing the web. Maybe you see different adverts to me? How would I know.

Anyhow, the current situation needs to change, and to do so we need concrete things to ask for. Am I unrealistic or am I not going far enough? What do you think?

Posted in Advertising.

3 Responses

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  1. The Jim says

    I think a good beginning would be to follow the lead of contract/tort law and say that a website’s operators are legally responsible for any content embedded from external sites where some consideration is paid either way. As far as I can see, this would neatly prevent websites from disclaiming responsibility for their advertisers while taking their money. It would also provide an automatic exemption for crowdsourced content-based sites like Facebook – as long as they don’t pay the user in question for their content contributions (or vice versa).

    • Christopher Gutteridge says

      The issue is there’s no way for a viewer to tell the difference between me embedding a youtube video, and one you paid me to embed, but it could address the reputable media platforms at least, which is my main element of concern. It’s toxic when our news comes from companies funded in part by linking to fake news.

  2. Freja says

    I used to work in ad tech, so I have a bit of insight here.

    The ablity for websites to prevent this kind of advertising is already out there. In my experience, the companies that rely heavily on reputation, sell a service and who have vocal customers are very hot on preventing this kind of advertising. If a customer can withdraw their payment/switch to another similar service then the company cares about their experience on the website because the advertising income is supplemental to their core income.

    Its websites where their main income is from advertising that are more reluctant to lose income by being overly strict on these ads at the risk of excluding genuine ones. There is going to be a sweet spot where they can maximise revenue by not turning away readers with shit ads but still getting a broad enough pool allowed to bid for their ad space to get a good income. If enough people complain to the website and/or stop visiting it then they will be insentivised to change their strategy, as indeed we’ve seen approaches change in regard to ad blockers. But that does require readers to idenify the dodgy ads in the first place.

    The companies/websites often have a lot less smarts about them about this stuff than you’d think and pressure to drive advertising revenues can mean that they don’t focus on the customer experience, which is a mistake. It is ultimately the website’s responsibility, everything else behind the website is only done at the website’s request. If their ad tech supplier messes up then and supplies dodgy ads when they’ve been instructed by the website otherwise (it happens) its up the the website to then get compensation from the provider, but from the users PoV its the website who is accountable.

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