Major publishers are buying ads in mobile games like ‘Subway Surfers’ to juice traffic

We played ‘Subway Surfers’ for three weeks. Of 365 ads, 124 were articles from 26 different publishers.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: Kiloo, Sybo Games

11 min read

The next time you’re hopping turnstiles or collecting coins in your favorite mass transit-themed mobile game, you might catch yourself reading Vanity Fair. Or Complex. Or the Los Angeles Times. No, it isn’t simulating the pre-Covid commute—some publishers are buying traffic from Subway Surfers, one of the most popular mobile-app games in the world.

Marketing Brew observed the mobile game directing traffic to major publishers’ websites using a practice called “rewarded inventory,” where players can earn in-game rewards for sitting through advertisements. But in this case, instead of sitting through a commercial, users are expected to scroll through articles, like one from Self titled “20-Minute Bodyweight Strength Workout for Runners.”

Industry folks told Marketing Brew this type of incentivized traffic is largely a gray area in the world of publisher-advertiser agreements.

It’s one thing if advertisers are buying inventory in mobile games. It’s another if publishers are using that inventory to boost their own traffic, potentially juicing ad impressions along the way. Often, advertisers want to buy from publishers because they’re relevant to their audiences, but with rewarded traffic, “there’s absolutely zero intent” to visit these sites, said Chris Kane, founder and president of Jounce Media. “It is really clear that marketers do not consider this to be a good use of their funds.”

Essentially, brands that might have been trying to reach a certain audience—like women interested in skin-care routines who read New Beauty—could be showing up in front of Subway Surfers players.

“These are impressions generated by a real human…but is she remotely interested in the publishers’ content? Who can say? Because she didn’t intend to go there,” said Rocky Moss, an ad-fraud researcher and co-founder and CEO of brand suitability firm DeepSee, who’s investigated rewarded traffic. “So this really screws that up, because the assumption under contextual is that people visit a site because they have some engagement with the content.”

‘Subway Surfers’ —> your fav publisher

How we spotted it: We played Subway Surfers. Like, a lot—almost every day for three weeks for about 30 minutes to an hour every day. In the game, players can opt in to watching an ad in exchange for rewards like coins, power-ups, and extended running time after their player dies (in video-game terminology, of course). That’s where we saw publishers.

It started out slow. On the first day, Subway Surfers showed us 35 ads for mobile games or other apps before we came across our first publisher, the Spanish news and entertainment site Mundo Hispánico.

  • After this sighting, there were 35 more run-of-the-mill mobile ads, followed by an article from Highsnobiety, a fashion and lifestyle publisher. After one more standard ad, we saw an article from Complex.

Eventually—and during the rest of our research—almost every other ad we watched was for a publisher, including Vanity Fair, MadameNoire, and HealthCentral. By the end of the three weeks, we’d watched 365 ads on Subway Surfers, and 124 of them were articles from 26 different publishers.

Moss said it’s a common tactic to gate ad experiences, meaning users will only see a particular type of ad (like, in this case, an article) once they’ve hit some sort of threshold, like how long they’ve been playing. Some ad companies have software-development kits that provide access to special permissions within apps, enabling them to do things like place certain types of ads after an initial influx of standard mobile ads, Moss explained.

On its website, the Jun Group claims to be able to “drive millions of visitors to any page” on a publisher’s website via “rewarded placements,” including one case study in which it claims it drove 13 million page views (!!!) for an unnamed campaign. DeepSee, alongside ad-fraud analyst Augustine Fou, identified 213 Android apps, including Subway Surfers, Pinterest, and *checks notes* Bubble Shooter 2, that yielded ad signals tied to Jun Group, data exclusively shared with Marketing Brew. Moss first alerted Marketing Brew to Jun Group’s work with publishers, which it has done since 2014.

These ads pull up the publisher’s website, where a player can scroll through an article, watch any video that might be on display, and see any ads on the page. Whether they choose to interact with the content or not, the player must stay on the screen for a designated amount of time.

  • In most cases, we had to stay on the screen for 30 seconds. Skipping or exiting the ad early prevented us from collecting the extra coins, reviving our character, or securing any other reward the ad experience offered.

In some instances, players are directed to a seemingly random article, like one from New Beauty titled “Caffeine in Skin Care: What’s the Buzz?” In others, they are brought to sponsored content, like a Complex series that was produced for Macy’s or a story from MadameNoire about the performer Hit-Boy, sponsored by Infiniti.

The fact that this is happening within Subway Surfers is significant. It’s considered one of the most popular mobile games of all time, surpassing 2 billion worldwide lifetime downloads in April of 2022, according to

Traffic trouble

Of the 26 publishers we reached out to via email, only three responded with comment. When asked about the traffic, Complex spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said that “this type of ad represents a small sliver of our overall ad strategy” and confirmed that the inventory was bought through the Jun Group, representing 1%–2% of BuzzFeed’s ad campaigns and about 5% of Complex Networks’, he said. “Because this represents such a tiny portion of ad campaigns, we don’t discuss it with every client.”

Susan Barber Lindquist, senior communications specialist, media relations at the Mayo Clinic, told Marketing Brew that “we do not have a direct relationship with Jun Group.” She said the Mayo Clinic “works with an outside advertising agency to place ads based on our requirements,” noting that a Subway Surfers ad that we’d sent “does not appear to have gone through our review process and will be looked into with our agency.”

Hillary Manning, VP of communications at the Los Angeles Times, confirmed that the publisher had worked with the Jun Group. “We do provide reporting to advertising clients to verify we’ve fulfilled campaign goals, including page views and ad impressions,” they said. “The paid and/or trade promotion details of the campaign aren’t necessarily included.”

A source at a DSP who is able to see how much traffic publishers gained from the Jun Group between January and late July shared the following figures:

  • On a day in June, Complex received 6% of its traffic from the Jun Group.
  • In May, the Los Angeles Times saw 4% of its traffic come from the Jun Group on one specific day.
  • Blavity received nearly 75% of its traffic from the Jun Group on one day in July, and Fatherly saw 26% on one day in mid-July from the Jun Group.
  • Both TheGrio and Scary Mommy received about 91% and around 61% of their traffic from the Jun Group, on given days, respectively.
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Further, according to Moss, none of the bid requests he observed from publisher-bought traffic were labeled as rewarded.

Do advertisers care?

Publishers leveraging purchased traffic is a deceptive practice, but the industry is mixed on who’s actually at fault.

The Trade Desk Spokesperson Patrick Wentling said the company considers incentivized traffic to be invalid traffic (IVT). Integral Ad Science, a digital ad-verification company, said via spokesperson Jenny Rowe that it considered in-app rewards to be incentivized traffic and that they are categorized as “reduced-value inventory,” which it can flag for clients, but doesn’t block.

Google spokesperson Michael Aciman declined to answer whether the company considers rewarded traffic to be IVT but said that it has “systems in place to detect invalid traffic, which is against our policies.” Google previously told Marketing Brew that it considered IVT to be traffic that does not represent “genuine user intent or interest.” In April, we reported that Yahoo had purchased redirected traffic from adult and piracy sites as well as from incentivized-traffic sources.

Google sells its own rewarded inventory, allowing advertisers to run either a video or interactive display ad on apps, enabling users to unlock things like “three news articles, 10 gold coins, an extra life in a game, wi-fi access at an airport, and so forth.” An app-monetization company called IronSource, which merged with Unity in July, also offers rewarded video inventory.

As Moss told Marketing Brew, no one likely anticipated publishers shoving entire articles into these ads. “Since when is an ad allowed to have an ad in it lol,” he joked over text.

The Media Ratings Council, an industry body that oversees measurement accreditation, told Marketing Brew that the companies—be they an ad server, a publisher, or a third-party—serving ads to paid traffic have to only tell advertisers that they have identified this traffic and how much. However, the MRC says purchased traffic should be subject to a higher degree of scrutiny.

Its rules defining IVT specifically exclude “cases where the entity paying for the incentive is the entity being promoted,” meaning that if a publisher is paying to drive traffic to its own site, that’s alright.

“The onus is on whomever is doing the measurement and is counting the impressions and is providing that information as the basis for the commercial transaction,” said MRC spokesperson Bill Daddi via email. “It may be a publisher, it may be an ad server, it may be another third-party, etc.”

None of the publishers we saw doing this are on the MRC’s membership list.

While playing Subway Surfers, Marketing Brew saw several advertisers, including Target and Macy’s, run ads on rewarded traffic. We reached out to five of them via email, but none responded, except Target, which declined to comment.

“Deceptively and fraudulently”

Even media buyers acknowledge that it’s a gray area.

Media buyers who spoke with Marketing Brew told us this can be a disingenuous strategy. For example, if you’re buying the LA Times, you expect your ad to reach people actually reading the LA Times.

One buyer said advertisers rarely think to ask where the traffic comes from because they’re expecting to get legit traffic from the publisher they buy from. And these days, because of all the fraudulent traffic, many buyers make clear in their contracts that traffic should originate with the publisher.

Joshua Lowcock, global chief media officer at UM Worldwide, said over email that he “would absolutely consider this to be IVT and that the publisher is acting deceptively and fraudulently. It’s no different from buying fake traffic and saying it is legitimate because you ‘paid’ for it. The tactics make a mockery of the intent of incentivized traffic standards, and this behavior is a disservice to advertisers and the industry.”

Because it’s incentivized, it can open the doors to more malicious actors, explained Matthew Engstrom, VP of marketing for the ad-tech measurement company Digital Remedy, through spokesperson Chris Harihar.

“Incentivized traffic can be a huge source of fraud and IVT, so there are major media-quality concerns,” he told Marketing Brew. It “may increase ad impressions on sites to which the traffic is being directed, but are those impressions worth paying for?”

Jun Group CEO Corey Weiner responded to Marketing Brew’s questions through marketing manager Will Braithwaite, saying that in Weiner’s experience, he’s “found that advertisers are rarely concerned about purchased traffic. I am confident that if advertisers were to ask publishers if they buy advertising to promote their websites, that they would say ‘yes.’”

Of course, buying an ad on Twitter or even Taboola, where users must click an ad to visit a publisher, is different from being sent there automatically without knowing what they’re about to read.

“Rewarded environments are known to be some of the most powerful and authentic formats in the world,” he said. “Basically, publishers love rewarded traffic because consumers love the format, and it guarantees high viewability and retention.”

So long as publishers are transparent with advertisers, it’s a reality the industry has to live with, should publishers need to hit unobtainable metrics, explained Paul Bannister, chief strategy officer at CafeMedia.

“If any one of those publishers is saying to the agency, ‘We’re buying traffic from this company, and this is what it looks like, this is why we’re doing it, this is what the performance is gonna be,’ and everyone’s agreed, you can’t be mad about that,” he said.

Kane similarly said that “at a minimum, the publisher needs to be disclosing to the marketer that it is buying traffic to fulfill its commitment.”

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