Ad Tech & Programmatic

Advertisers are still spending millions on clickbait, according to a report

Made-for-advertising sites continue to litter the bidstream despite efforts to root it out.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before—despite recent industry attempts to squash it, advertisers appear to still be spending millions advertising on clickbait sites.

A new report released this week from the ad-tech auditing firm Adalytics suggests that clickbait, often called made-for-advertising inventory (MFA), is continuing to litter the bidstream.

The report is largely anecdotal, using public, digital forensic skills along with an analysis of an Adalytics client, to paint a picture of programmatic waste it observed in January.

  • In one instance, H&R Block served more than 2,100 impressions to one user on an MFA site within an hour.
  • In another, Adalytics found that Comcast paid an effective CPM of $2,628 to reach one consumer on an MFA site.
  • Adalytics was asked to conduct an ad-spend analysis on behalf of a Fortune 500 company and found that in the second half of 2023, it had spent at least $10 million on MFA websites, despite recent efforts to minimize its MFA exposure. (The report does not detail how much this amount represents as a percentage of that company’s total ad spend.)

“We work with reputable and trusted partners in the marketing ecosystem and have implemented frequency caps across every single campaign and line item. Our agency partners are investigating the error that appears to have occurred with one of our DSP partners and are making necessary adjustments,” Alice Colarusso, VP of growth marketing and engagement at H&R Block, wrote in an email.

Comcast did not respond to Marketing Brew’s request for comment.

The issue continues to be widespread, according to Adalytics’s research. The report identifies major holding companies, DSPs, SSPs, and big-name advertisers, as all having bought, sold, or bid on MFA inventory. The report does not identify whether the MFA inventory was intentionally sought out or not, and it’s possible that some advertisers do want to appear on these sites.

You won’t believe what happens next

Clickbait has become the bogeyman of the ad-tech industry. Adalytics, which is widely regarded in the industry, has released multiple reports focused on clickbait sites that have raised concerns about transparency within Google’s advertising business. And last year, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) published a two-part report finding that 15% of programmatic, open-web advertising dollars went to MFA websites, totaling about $10 billion in ad spend.

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After the ANA’s report, several ad-tech vendors said they’d try to clean up their acts by removing MFA inventory from the curated inventory they sell to advertisers, called private marketplace (PMP) deals.

In its most recent report, though, Adalytics found that 16 of the 17 brands that publicly participated in the ANA’s MFA study, including Molson Coors and State Farm, were running ads on MFA sites earlier this year.

“State Farm does not advertise on MFAs. Our independent contractor agents are expected to follow brand and marketing guidelines,” State Farm spokesperson Rachael Risinger said via email. Molson Coors did not provide comment by publication time.

Beyond that, several vendors, including YieldMo, PubMatic, OpenX, and TripleLift, “were observed potentially transacting PMP deals on made-for-advertising sites” according to Adalytics.

Zoey Larsen, a spokesperson for OpenX, said that the company “eliminated MFA by default” in new direct-sold deals beginning in October 2023, adding that “as some buyers have deals that are long-lived and performing as the buyer intends, some existing deals were unaffected. Rather than changing buyers’ existing deals on their behalf, we provided the option to remove MFA from existing deals with one click at any time the buyer desires.”

Because “buyers have specific creative units that due to their specs need to run on MFA in order to successfully scale,” Larsen said, “in these instances, buyers have selected certain MFA sites on which to intentionally run.”

Alyssa Tognetti, a PR representative at Broadsheet Communications, told Marketing Brew via email that PubMatic continues to exclude publishers that are considered to be MFA sites and that it “always adhere[s] to a buyer’s request for the inventory included in deals.”

Rocky Moss, an ad-fraud researcher and co-founder and CEO of DeepSee, which helped establish industry guidelines around buying MFA inventory, advised that advertisers steer clear of MFA sites when possible.

“Just saying something is bad doesn’t move the needle one way or another. But in audits we do for clients, it’s very clear when you track sales and revenue generation, [MFA sites] just don’t work,” Moss said.

Correction 3/11/2024: The description of the programmatic data usage in the report has been updated to remove a reference to Adalytics clients.

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