Today I was on the Yahoo Homepage, and noticed something fishy about the second article on the page. It was titled “Ex-Homeless Man takes Smart Pill: Becomes A Genius”.
I generally ignore sponsored content of this type. However, the way that the article blended in almost seamlessly with the regular news bugged me, and I decided to check out the specific claims of the article. The only thing tipping one off to the fact that this wasn’t a standard news piece was the tiny “Sponsored” text at the bottom right of the ad.
When I clicked through to the article, what I saw next was pretty shocking. It was basically an orgy of fraud and copyright/trademark infringement.
The top of the advertisement directly rips off a real scientific publication, Discover Magazine (www.discovermagazine.com). The site design for the real Discover Magazine and for the advertisement are indistinguishable. In addition, the url for the advertising page was www.discoverpresentsonline.com/david-brain/report.html, which is clearly trying to give the user the impression that they are actually on the Discover Magazine website. The article itself only appears to be reachable if you have the tracking cookie from Yahoo, perhaps as a way to prevent too much outside scrutiny. UPDATE: Per the discussion on Hacker News, the advertiser is not necessarily using a cookie. They could just be looking at the referrer url to decide whether to display the ad or not.
Next, there is what appears to be a screenshot from CNN. The picture is of David Boone, whose family was homeless for a time prior to his acceptance to Harvard. An inspiring story, no doubt. What is less inspiring is how this predatory company decided to modify the screenshot from CNN’s interview.
Ripping off David’s interview from CNN apparently wasn’t enough for this company. They also claim in their advertisement that with regards to David’s accomplishments, “we previously though it was down to countless hours of hard work and repetitive learning” but in reality “he recently admitted that he takes a brain booster which doubled his IQ, skyrocketed his energy levels and gets him ‘in the zone’ in minutes”. Doesn’t get much lower than that.
It only gets worse from there. The next graphic on the page is a supposed tweet from the movie “Limitless”. Personally, I missed this movie, but Rotten Tomatoes summarizes it as follows: “Aspiring author Eddie Morra (Cooper) is suffering from chronic writer’s block, but his life changes instantly when an old friend introduces him to NZT, a revolutionary new pharmaceutical that allows him to tap his full potential.”
Clearly, the makers of Brainstorm pills would love to be associated in some way with this movie. Their solution can be shown in the tweet on the left below.
Finally, the advertisement boasts: “Brainstorm was recently given honorary mention in Forbes’ printed and online magazine editions as being the pill that can turn you into ‘the quickest thinker on the planet”. They even provide a “screenshot” from the Forbes article (left, below).
Perhaps this is all no harm, no foul, since who would actually buy such a product?
Apparently, lots of people. There are 15 reviews on this site (http://www.highya.com/brain-storm-elite-reviews), all with ratings of 1 out of 5 stars. Here is what one reviewer had to say (emphasis added):
“I think saying that this company is questionable is a major understatement. I saw the supposed endorsements from celebrities, and the guarantee, thought I would give it a try, I ordered one bottle of Brain Storm Elite, entered my payment and shipping info, next thing I know, I have been charged $144 for another product “The Memory Plus”. I NEVER gave “MP” any CC information or anything, when I called BrainStorm about this, they say they are affiliated but do not have access to Memory Plus accounts, I asked how Memory Plus got my credit card information because the only website I was on was for BrainStorm. Big Surprise, someone else would have to get back to me on that. Filed report with BBB.”
So this customer saw the celebrity endorsements, gave the company his credit card number, and got scammed. There are probably countless others who were too embarrassed to review the company online.
The Brainstorm Elite company is obviously paying big money to appear on the Yahoo homepage, and they can afford it by selling placebo pills for $144 a pop.
Yahoo isn’t purely to blame, as the ads are being served by “AdChoices”, a Google company. AdChoices was a rebranding of “Ads by Google” (http://searchengineland.com/google-revamps-labels-on-ads-to-comply-with-industry-effort-69424). According to the Search Engine Land article, the creation of AdChoices was aimed at “regulating the industry before the government steps in”. I can’t imagine why regulation would be necessary, after all, we now have Brainstorm to solve our problems.
UPDATE: While Google participates in AdChoices, and did rebrand from “Ads by Google”, that doesn’t mean they served this particular ad. AdChoices is a collaboration between many companies (http://www.youradchoices.com/participants.aspx). So this one might be solely on Yahoo. Thanks to Hacker News for the correction.
Do Yahoo and Google have some responsibility for ads that occupy premium placements on their web properties? Do companies like Brainstorm Elite ever pay the price for wholesale fraud and the theft of brand identities?