One tip of a spam marketing

I know if you’re like me, you’re getting sick of the proliferation lately of “this video was banned” ads showing up on Google Ads remnant advertising, like the kind we rely on here at Freethought Blogs to keep our lights on. They only show up if you’ve opted out of more targeted advertising by Google, and they only show up if a site doesn’t have a specific ad sell — and at the moment we’ve got, to my knowledge, a few ad buys, but not a ton. So we’re seeing a normal level of background remnant network ads, as odious and mistargeted as they tend to be (especially if you’re one of those aforementioned opt-outs, like me).

But there’s something weird about these newer ads, the ones with the offensive pics of women practically falling out of their tops and the tagline suggesting these viral videos were banned by Google (the very ad seller they use) — the ones exhorting a new secret trick that you need to see before The Establishment ruins it for you. If you dare click through, it turns out they’re using one weird a new tactic, one you might have seen before with those “One Weird Tip of a Flat Belly” ads. Alex Kaufman explains:

I clicked on my first ad, which promised a cure for diabetes. Specifically, I hoped to “discover how 1 weird spice reverses diabetes in 30 short days.” The ad showed a picture of cinnamon buns. Could the spice be… cinnamon? Maybe I would find out. The link brought up a video with no pause button or status bar. A kindly voice began: “Prepare to be shocked.” I prepared myself. As “Lon” spoke, his words flashed simultaneously on the screen, PowerPoint-style. As soon as he started, Lon seemed fixated on convincing me to stay until the end. “This could be the most important video you ever watch,” he promised. “Watch the entire video, as the end will surprise you!”

Every time Lon seemed about to get to the spicy heart of the matter, he’d go off on a tangent. This video wouldn’t stay on the Internet for long, he said. The cure is for people “ready to put down the flaky answers.” Indeed, “if you’re looking for a miracle cure or new age fad, leave this page now.” Lon also took pains to trash the medical establishment. Big Pharma has been lying to you, he said. They profit every time you take their pills, or inject yourself with their needles. But the secret spice Lon discovered can free you of the lies and the needles. You will “look and feel like you were never sick.” Your doctor will confirm your cure, astounded.

What is Lon up to? “People tend to think something is important if it’s secret,” says Michael Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School. “Studies find that we give greater credence to information if we’ve been told it was once ‘classified.’ Ads like this often purport to be the work of one man, telling you something ‘they’ don’t want you to know.” The knocks on Big Pharma not only offered a tempting needle-free fantasy; they also had a whiff of secret knowledge, bolstering the ad’s credibility.

This sounds like the kind of thing we skeptics need to get ahead of. Advertisers for dubious products have discovered how to get people’s attention by setting expectations really high, by manipulating certain trustworthiness factors in their presentation by not making it look TOO professional, by getting their hooks into people’s psyches and keeping them from realizing how slick and manipulative the tactics actually are. I’ve seen these tactics, these “one weird tricks”, these “this video got banned”‘s, used to advertise everything from penis enlargement to naturopathy to pick-up artistry. Every one is a bloody scam, you just know it. And yet I’m compelled to listen to them now and again, to see what depths of depravity they can reach.

It’s fascinating that these tricks apparently work — hooking people with the lure of secret knowledge, then yammering on for half an hour while you promise you’re getting close to the big secret, and leaving people with this incorrect view that they just heard half an hour worth of good reasons to believe your story. And then the big reveal is, of course, a sales pitch. At the end of everything, at the end of having invested half an hour listening to empty rhetoric as a filter to get to an order form page, people are actually buying the product. This is somehow playing on some psychological tenets we share — some bugs in our decidedly buggy evolved brains. It reminds me a lot of how religions spread, in fact. Tons of empty words that leave you feeling like you just heard a lot of reasons to accept what came next, then a line of bullshit you have to be willing to swallow whole.

It kills me that these ads are showing up on our network — not that there’s much we can do about it but copy out the link URL and report it to our advertisers and say “no, this bullshit is unacceptable.” I’d like to put together something to make that easier, e.g. an automatic scraping of the image / flash presented and the URL shown, sent automatically to the powers-that-be in an email via a single button click, but I am not 100% sure I can take the time to hack something out in Javascript right now.

Kaufman’s article explains a few other tactics that are common to this new breed of sleazoid marketing. You’d do well to bone up on their tactics, and figure out ways to counter them.

One tip of a spam marketing

12 thoughts on “One tip of a spam marketing

  1. 1

    At the end of everything, at the end of having invested half an hour listening to empty rhetoric as a filter to get to an order form page, people are actually buying the product.

    With spam, it doesn’t even need to be effective to be profitable.
    Nag tens of thousands of people, and just a few buyers will pay for the marginal effort.

    This is somehow playing on some psychological tenets we share – some bugs in our decidedly buggy evolved brains.

    Every one is a bloody scam, you just know it.

    Individuals’ vulnerability to these tactics vary with their circumstance and background, or may even be exaggerated (eg, crank magnetism). Social psych covers situational gullibility.
    In principle anyone can be fooled; it’s just less likely when you’re familiar with advertising tropes and cultivate an association of disgust at their use. To resist, one has to be both aware of persuasion and actively critical while targeted, however. A false sense of invulnerability can make skeptics complacent.
    Just stumbled onto this, looks decent.
    Book: Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion
    (partial google books preview)
    My dad got tricked into watching a testosterone infomercial the other day. Lack energy?, men today shadows of former selves, alpha males, Usain Bolt sure can run fast…
    I countered with Powerthirst. 😛

  2. 2

    See also this post on Richard Carrier’s blog:

    He suggests capturing the URL of offensive ads and using the “tech issues” feature (at the top of the main page) to report them. I’ve been trying to restrict myself to doing that once a day! My “favorite” one is the “free energy” scam one from “Power4Patriots” but I’ve reported the “Google Banned this Video” one as well. It appears to be for a (probably fake) testosterone supplement.

  3. 3 has some suggestions.

    One is to block categories of ads. This relies on the advertiser being honest about the ad category.

    Another is to review the ads before they show up:

    Apparently you can block an ad buyer totally 🙂
    Pre-approve this AdWords account: All ads from this AdWords account will be automatically approved. This applies to all targeting types (contextual, interest-based, and placement).
    Block this AdWords account: All ads from this AdWords account will always be blocked. This applies to all targeting types (contextual, interest-based, and placement). Blocking ads from an AdWords account may have a negative impact on your revenue.

    Yes, they can probably open another account, but it drives up their cost

  4. 4

    Reminds me of the TV informercial scammer Kevin Trudeau. He’d go on and on and on about what a wonderful thing he was going to tell you — but never actually tell you anything.

    I saw his book on weight loss at my local library, so out of curiosity I picked it up. Now, Trudeau tells you in his informercial about this book about how no dieting is involved, no exercise, no cost, no nothing. Just follow the path exactly as laid out in the book and you’ll lose weight for sure.

    First thing is the padding. Out of somewhere around 300 pages of text, about 20 pages (one chapter) are devoted to the actual “plan”. And the “plan” is basically a bunch of nutjob bullet points. Some of which were totally contradictory to one another, others of which were redundant with something three bullet points up. Many were dangerous — such as 500 calorie starvation dieting. Just about every other one was about increasing the amount of exercise you did. And the BIG reveal was HCG — which is not approved by the FDA for weight loss (because it’s dangerous and doesn’t work).

    But, of course, if you sued Trudeau for scamming you, he’d win — because you can’t possibly follow the advice given in the “plan”. But he says you have to follow it to the letter in order to lose weight.

    Scammers scam any way they can scam.

  5. 5

    Every one is a bloody scam, you just know it.

    It used to be much more difficult to spot and avoid a scam, when it was targetted and done in person. Now scams are so widely broadcast, courtesy of the Internet, that even if only one person in a million is sufficiently naive or sufficiently stupid to fall for one, the scammer makes a profit.

    It’s said that lotteries are a tax on the poor. I prefer to think (rightly or wrongly) that scams — and lotteries — are a tax on the stupid. I’d like to think that one answer (as with many problems plaguing society) is better education, but to achieve that would require a less selfish and a more forward-thinking society.

  6. 7

    I had a similar experience. There was a weight loss ad that promised to turn you into Adonis in three weeks if you’d only buy their book with the “top ten tips” or whatever it was. I googled a bit and found a free copy of the book to see what those tips really were.
    First, the tips turned out to be various phrasings of “eat less and exercise more”. Second, the tips themselves took up about two pages. The entire rest of the 100+ page book was pure fluff, talking about how amazing the author was.

    And why is it always a “weird” tip? I see that again and again. I suspect it has to do with sending the message that you can’t figure this out on your own (because it’s so weird), so you have to buy the book/course/video/magic potion.

    From the article:

    “Mainstream ads sometimes use long lists of bullet points—people don’t read them, but it’s persuasive to know there are so many reasons to buy.”

    It reminds me of that experiment where a person asks to cut in line for the copy machine. The person either just asks if they can jump ahead or they ask if they can jump ahead “because I need to make a copy”. Offering the reason, however silly and obvious, increases the chances that people will let you skip ahead in line.

    There’s some part of our brain that evaluates things according to number of reasons given, rather than the validity of the reasons. I guess it’s basically a heuristic to quickly check if there’s support for an idea without having to slowly check through all the data. It’s similar to our reliance on authorities; rather than checking the facts, we trust someone else.
    However, when the person we’re trusting is also the person about to profit if we agree, most people should be able to see that there’s a conflict of interest.

    And that leads me to the last point: Most people aren’t actually all that stupid. They just have no training in critical thinking. It would be nice if we could find a way to spread information about critical thinking beyond our little circle. Those who are interested will find the information themselves. The more important thing is, how do we get people interested who, at the moment, aren’t?

    Maybe ads and scams like this could be a good way to introduce such topics? The average Joe/Jane, working two jobs to support a family isn’t going to care too much about the intricacies of the cosmological argument. They’ve got other things to worry about.
    However, if you frame it in the context of “you’re about to be scammed out of your life savings”, maybe they’ll suddenly find it a lot more relevant to their situation? And once they’ve learned the skills in one area, they’re easily transferable to other areas.

  7. 8

    Tsu Dho Nimh: Apparently we’re doing our ad hosting through third party managers, and the only category they refuse to let us turn off is “Political”, but as far as I know, we’ve already disabled the scammy ones. And yet they keep showing up.

    But I don’t know all the salient details. All I know is, we’re seeing a lot of ads show up even after blocking them — multiple ad buys and thus multiple URLs, I think. Like that Tynon “for male gamers only” bullshit, for instance.

  8. 11

    I have AdBlock+ disabled on FtB, and mostly I don’t notice the sidebar ads. Often when I do, I snicker a bit. I used to click through on every Liberty University ad, just to have them send you money, and I’d snicker a bit louder.

  9. 12

    @9: Orange?

    The advert up as I write this has gone full-meta:

    Who Really Scammed You?
    1) Enter Their Email Address 2) See Hidden Pics & Social Profiles Now!

    Search Now!

    I mean, this crap must work sometimes, or else it wouldn’t be worth the cost, but I do not get the appeal (it may not be a bug of biological evolution so much as a bug of social/cultural evolution).

    By the way, the fixed preview pane is fancy, nice work!

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