Got hit with an ugly ad? Ad companies may leave you in the dark

You are getting bombarded with bad ads. 

Google says it removed more than 3 billion of them last year — bad ads that tried to trick you, infect you or shock you.

I got one, too.

I was reading an article on the Los Angeles Times site on my phone, when — boom — right in front of me, a bad ad.

So bad, we can’t show it to you without fuzzing it out.

It looks like a man’s body part with some white goo on it.

“Men, you don’t need the blue pill if you do this once a day,” it says. 

My first thought is, ‘Wow, that’s very unpleasant. Don’t let the kids see!”

But my second thought is, “Actually, this is a really good way to show you what’s going on with offensive and malicious ads on your phone and computer — and how you, the customer, can be kept in the dark.

Watch report (and see ad) here:

 

 

Who sent this ad?

Our first stop, the L.A. Times, since the ad showed up on their site.

The Times says yes, this ad is in “poor taste,” but it’s not their ad. It came to their site from another company.

Which company? we ask.

But the L.A. Times goes silent, and stops answering our calls and e-mails.

Elevated Experience?

We keep looking and find out this ad is connected to a company called Yieldmo.

Yieldmo says it operates “one of the world’s largest independent mobile ad marketplaces,” delivering more than 8 billion mobile ad impressions every month.

Their mission, they say, is to “elevate the digital advertising experience for consumers, advertisers, and publishers.”

 

Yieldmo says its mission is to “elevate the digital advertising experience.” Image: Yieldmo

 

So, we write in as a customer.

After two requests, Yieldmo finally answers, saying, “This ad has been blocked” and “it will no longer appear on any website.”

That’s great! We ask, how did it happen?

Now Yieldmo goes silent. No response.

Search for Answers

We contact them again, this time as a reporter with Archer News Network.

Chief Revenue Officer Jeremy Steinberg answers. 

He says it’s not a Yieldmo ad, but did come through their pipes, and they blocked it.

We ask who sent the ad.

Steinberg says he can’t say — their contracts prevent that kind of info going out.

We have more questions for this company delivering you billions of ads on big-name sites like Time, CNN and Univision.

Does Yieldmo approve the ads before delivery? How did this ad get through?

But it’s over — Steinberg says he’s too busy to answer any more questions.

 

Yieldmo’s Jeremy Steinberg declines to answer further questions about an unpleasant ad & the company’s response to customers.

 

What now? 

The people giving us the bad ads have cut us off.

It’s like someone exposes himself to you at your house and the police and neighbors know his name, but they won’t tell you who it is or how he got to your house.

Archer News turns to experts for help.

“If you as a consumer receive an ad like this, what do you do?” we ask Travis Smith, a researcher with security company Tripwire in Portland, Oregon.

“There’s really not much you can do as a consumer because you’ve already been exposed to that ad,” he answers. “You can’t unsee some things, right?”

 

Tripwire’s Travis Smith speaks to Archer News about obnoxious & malicious ads. Image: Archer News Network

 

Despite the shortage of answers from the Los Angeles Times and Yieldmo, he says it’s a good idea to contact the companies involved if you get a bad ad.

“They don’t want to be in a position where, like, a minor viewed this type of ad — when it’s supposed to be served to an adult — because then they could be liable for different things,” Smith says.

“Then why are they showing inappropriate ads like that?” we ask.

“Because they’re making money off of it,” Smith responds.

What Should You Do?

Smith’s solution? 

“The best possibility, if you’re concerned about ads, whether they might be inappropriate or malicious, is install something like an ad blocker to prevent seeing anything like that,” says Smith. 

Ad blockers keep ads from showing up on your screen, as illustrated in this AdBlock, well, ad video.

 

AdBlock ad video.

 

There are many other blockers out there, too, like Adblock Plus, AdBlocker Ultimate, AdGuard, 1Blocker, Brave Browser, uBlock Origin and more. 

One of the most popular is Adblock Plus.

Its CEO, Till Faida, says the current approach to digital advertising is broken and deeply dysfunctional.

“I think it is a very serious problem,” he tells Archer News. “I think for a long time, advertising has really gone out of hand.”

What’s Wrong with the System?

Faida says there is too much ad space and ads are too cheap, so it doesn’t pay to police the system.

Publishers auction off space to the highest bidder, usually sight unseen.

Advertising companies deliver their goods to sites in the blink of an eye.

Malicious ads and privacy-busting trackers can run rampant across well-known publishers.

“A lot of ads are actually unsafe, and a lot of ads actually violate your privacy,” Faida says.

 

An example of an ad that looks harmless, but tried to attack your computer, according to Malwarebytes. Image: Malwarebytes

 

Poison Pill?

Is the obnoxious ‘blue pill’ ad unsafe?

We check in with researcher Jerome Segura of Malwarebytes.

He says the blue pill ad is probably just clickbait — trying to get you to click — rather than a poison for your computer.

But he says it can be hard to tell if an ad will infect you.

Many malicious ads look completely innocent, giving no clue that they hide a destructive payload, like the ad that appeared to show off T-shirts with sassy slogans, but really delivered malware to your computer, or the tech support ads that are so overrun by scammers that Google is taking action to restrict them.

“That’s the whole reason people want to run ad blockers. It’s the whole reason I run an ad blocker, is to prevent that type of infection path,” Smith says. 

 

An example of a banner ad that gives no sign of its vicious intent. Image: Malwarebytes

 

Blocking More than Ads

But kill ads and you kill money that also pays for the content you see.

Faida’s solution for Adblock Plus is to add some ads back in, a limited number that he says are reviewed and approved.

“We all love free content,” Faida says. “We all want to the web to be open and accessible for everybody. And we all want that there is a way for high quality journalism to be funded.”

Block ads, and you may have to pay for content.

“Yes, I think that’s why it is important that we make advertising work,” Faida responds.

Making it Work

For many, advertising now is not working.

Research shows about 70% of people surveyed last year believe they’re seeing more and more ads — and those ads are more intrusive.

 

Kantar Millward Brown research shows about 70% of people surveyed in 2017 report seeing more intrusive ads. Image: Archer News 

 

At the same time, sites say they’re struggling to make enough money.

All the while, clickbait and malicious ads still get through to you.

And if you ask too many questions about this “elevated digital experience,” companies leave you in the dark.

Some say this system needs to change, to protect you, your family and what you want to see on the web.

“It’s not fair to them to block them of their revenue stream,” Smith says, referring to sites and publishers online.

“But, on the other hand, if it’s a revenue stream that is introducing bad things and introducing risk and introducing inappropriate images that could be shown to my children, then I as a consumer say that’s absolutely not appropriate.”

 

More Help

—Google offers some solutions for dealing with unwanted ads.

—Facebook explains how to report ads & other content.

—The Los Angeles Times provided this advice to people who see an offensive or inappropriate ad on its mobile site:

“Visitors to our site who are served ads that are offensive or inappropriate are encouraged to click on the triangle, which appears in the lower left corner of the ad on our mobile site, to display more information and an option to opt out. We also have an online form for reporting issues with the website.”