A weary Internet public sighs in relief. Finally the Federal Trade Commission is coming down on the people responsible for the animated belly fat ads — no more crudely drawn cellulite jiggling above tight jeans! No more images of French newscaster Melissa Theuriau (who reportedly didn’t know her image was being used) promising hard-hitting investigations into Acai berry products!
All is solved, the Internet is safe!
When I first started reporting on the digital ad space, over and over I heard CPA network heads claiming that the Wild West days of the Internet were over. Bulls—, I thought then, and I’m of the same mindset now. CPA networks love propagating the idea that some bad apples are ruining a legitimate business for the rest, but the fake blogs and articles (hence “flogs and farticles”) issue is systemic — publishers, networks, affiliates and advertisers are all guilty parties.
FTC reps — likely in response to a widely shared AdAge article suggesting the agency’s crackdown on flogs and farticles wasn’t doing much — sat down with Paul Farhi of The Washington Post to explain the 10 operations (PDF) it swept back in April, focusing on the belly ad scam in particular and why it spread to even the most premium content depots (MSNBC.com? CNN.com? My lord!) of the worldwide web via affiliate marketers (which WaPo almost describes as alien-like creatures).
Basically, affiliates used ads with the animated shrinking belly and pretty (fake) investigative reporters to lure browsers to websites disguised as legitimate news depots — i.e., they had no big print that saying “This is an advertisement.” These were/are filled with fake statements from real news depots and unsubstantiated benefits, as well as links to sketchy stores where you can buy miracle diet products.
It’s nothing new – a source recently suggested to me that the farticle has been ingrained in the affiliate model for a long, long time.
But the FTC is always quick to jump on health-related fraud, and there happens to be a scam du jour behind the belly ads. Most of the companies offer “free” samples in exchange for credit card information, but the devil is in the details, which are typically in the finer-than-fine print: a user unwittingly agrees to pay for more shipments in the future and can’t stop them until the toll-free cancel line is located and called (which is another hassle all in itself). The FTC is arguing that’s misleading to the point of fraudulent.
The previous poster boy for this kind of business is Jesse Willms, a Canadian Internet marketer accused by the FTC of making $467 million from such unsavory practices. If you Google “Jesse Willms,” a few sites about fraud and scams show up, but the majority of results are self-published sites boasting Willms’ charity work and puke-worthy platitudes about business ethics.
After years of ping-ponging around various industry publications, Gavin Dunaway finagled his way into the senior editor slot at Adotas, a depot for interactive advertising news and commentary. When not penning snarky articles about social media and behavioral targeting, the Washington, D.C. native and George Mason University graduate enjoys playing electric guitar so loud that the walls shake.