Repost: Ethics in Advertising

Posted Aug 31, 2001

NOTE: This is a repost of an article I wrote. I originally wrote in back around 2001 or so. I'm transferring it here to keep it together with my recent writings.

Advertising. The attempt to send information to people to convince them to spend their money with a certain company. This concept is the foundation of much of the modern financial world. The ads can attack any of the senses. Sight, hearing, touch even smell or taste. For example movie popcorn has a specific smell that's been refined over years to entice others in the movie theater to buy their own large bucket.

Advertising is big business. Billions of dollars are spent each MONTH on advertising. Many industries exist solely due to the influx of money advertising brings in. The cable TV industry, magazines, newspapers and many other media and non-media industries would be drastically changed if they couldn't sell advertising space.

Plus we wouldn't know what to buy.

Because of these facts, companies try all sorts of tactics to get our attention and money. Sometimes these attempts involve illegal, underhanded or dirty tricks.

Some examples of illegal tricks involve the old bait and switch. This tactic requires placing an ad for an item at tremendous value. Upon reaching the store, the shoppers finds that the item is "no longer available" and in order to alleviate their sorrow at missing the deal they are directed to a similar item that, while not as good of a bargain (sometimes no bargain at all) closely matches what they came in for.

An example would be an ad for a brand new computer with P3 1.2 Gig processor, 256 megs of Ram, 60 Gig hard drive, DVD, cd-writer and free software for only $599.95. What a bargain! As soon as you inquire: "I'm sorry, we're all sold out of that amazing deal, but since you need a computer, I can show you this one. It only has half as much processing power, ram or hard drive, but that sale item was probably too big for you anyway. It's a steal at just $600. If you need the DVD, I can have one installed for only $99..." and off you go being sold an item that you didn't initially want.

Why is this advertising method illegal? For two reasons.

One of the main problems is that often times, these underhanded techniques work all too well. They're based on deception, misdirection and other highly refined but sharply unethical techniques.

In many ways, and especially on the internet, the porn industry has had its share of unethical advertising.

One of the most common tactics used by the porn industry websites is to create pages that rank well for unrelated but "free" stuff. You are searching for something, say information on the latest Angelina Jolie movie, on the search engines and you see a search result offering free videos of Ms. Jolie. Sounds cool of course and you head to a page which flashes tons of banner ads (Which the owner gets paid for if you click on any of them. Another unethical practice.) The page offers secret pictures and videos of Ms. Jolie completely naked. Just click this link. You click and go to another dizzying array of ads before finding another link. You end up at a page that offers plenty of sexy naked women. All you have to do is fill in your name and credit card number...

And there you are, tempted to pay for pictures that have nothing to do with Angelina Jolie (Or if they do, they are often her face placed on top of some nude model.) but there you are anyway. You most likely don't even remember what you were searching for in the first place. (Info on her latest movie ring a bell?)

Does this technique work? Would the entire industry use it if it didn't?

Sometimes, the advertising attempt is covered in a veneer to make it sound OK to people with objections. They say they are just trying to offer "relevant content" to people that may want it, or say that all they have to do to stop receiving the ad is... If you receive e-zines with ads on them and don't want the e-zine anymore, sometimes it involves an act of congress and a true sighting of Godzilla to get off their list.

Advertising works best when it's aimed at "people who would most likely use the product". Because of this many unethical attempts are done to place ads in places they shouldn't be.

Let's say that Nike created an ad campaign of spray painting ads onto sidewalks. After all, people who are walking obviously need shoes, and they'll want the latest from Nike, right? Hey, this isn't defacing property. This is a major corporation simply marketing it's products to it's customers. That shouldn't be a problem, right? Never mind that they didn't pay the owners of the sidewalks for ad space. That's no big deal. (NOTE: To date, I'm not aware of Nike or anyone else doing this kind of ad campaign.)

I'm waiting for the day when someone creates prescription glasses that the wearer gets for free. The glasses simply flash occasional ads on the bottom right hand portion of the lens. Would this be unethical? What if you weren't told about the ads until after you got the glasses?

Where to draw the line?

So what line can we draw to tell unethical advertising from ethical advertising? The simplest method is: Does the ad campaign rely on misinformation or misdirection? If the ad lies to the customer promising one thing but then tries to deliver something else, that is unethical. Period.

How much further can advertising go? I think I found it.

The bottom of the barrel?

A company that I have found recently is guilty of many unethical practices, all at the same time. That company is Ezula.

They have a made a program that creates link ads on all webpage you view. They sell particular words or phrases to companies as advertising fees. This browser plug-in reads the words on the webpage you're reading and if it finds one of these words/phrases, it creates a link out of it that goes to the paying customer. For example, if the webpage you're reading has the phrase "hotel reservations" and you have this plug-in, then it creates a link out of that phrase that points to Nevermind that I, as a web designer didn't want that link there. That money making link shows up whether I like it or not.

You don't even have to download this program. It comes with another popular, but unrelated program: Kazaa. A program to find and download mp3's. Kazaa has raised in popularity with Napsters demise.

So let's see what's happening:

Let's see just how many unethical practices this entails:

Stealing ad space
They are selling the phrases on MY website and they aren't paying me a dime. I, as a website developer get nothing from this. They are selling ad space on my site, and not paying me.

If I created a device that could be placed on the TV cable outside your home and inserted little ads into your TV shows that the cable company didn't authorize, I could then sell advertising space. Of course, what I was doing would surely be found illegal and they would make me stop.

Defacing property
There is also the fact that they are defacing my site, in terms of adjusting it without my consent, or even knowledge.

There is the argument that web designers already don't have much control over how a webpage is presented because different browsers can show the same webpage in slightly (in some cases drastic) ways. Therefore, they shouldn't complain that some program might alter the look their sight.

However website developers care very much about how their site is presented. We care so much, that we often remake our entire site in three or four ways then use methods to send browsers to the correct version so the viewer will get what we want them to get.

But what do I do about this? I would have to search all my entire sites for ezula-linked words and change my wording. This is impossible since some of the words Ezula links are simple ones like "sports" or "mortgage". These words are hard to skirt around all the time.

Gambling with people's honor
Then there's the matter of honor in terms of content. If I write an article about gambling, links would be created that point to websites that I don't endorse. If someone doesn't understand that I didn't place that particular link and they get angry at me thinking that I am endorsing something that I'm not, what can I do? My reputation depends on making sure certain ethical standards aren't crossed.

One page on a site I work on focuses on kid friendly links. Parents trust that page and expect me to keep it very clean. If a sentence like "I'm betting this will work." shows up and the term betting creates a link to an online gambling casino, I'm in trouble.

Back door installation
This program comes piggybacked almost hidden in Kazaa's program. there is nothing on Kazaa's website that even remotely suggests that this program will also be downloaded and installed along with the program you intend to get. This in itself is unethical, although an increasingly common tactic.

Ezula claims that all you have to do is opt-out when you install Kazaa. There is one (and only one) screen where you can choose to not have Ezula's program installed. You are barely even told what the program does. As we have already mentioned, not everyone on the internet is computer savvy. To get a program installed is quite a feat, much less install just the correct one's when multiple programs are added.

When you install Internet Explorer, it installs some programs that are associated with it, such as Macromedia Flash plug-ins.

The Ezula program has nothing to do with Kazaa's program whatsoever. Shame on Kazaa for installing this, and three other unrelated, programs.

Even though I am computer savvy, if I didn't know about this program, I would have installed it too without thinking about it. The only reason anyone would be given to not install it would be because of bad publicity like this program deserves.

Changing identities
This program used to be called Toptext, this is the name most who know this situation still call it, but right after the bad news came out, they have changed the name of the program. In fact they have changed the name four times. There program has been called TopText, HOTtext, DesktopDollars and now ContextPro.

The only reason for doing this that I can think of would be to escape the bad publicity this program is generating.

Hacking in the name of corporate business
They are hacking sites, in the sense that they are altering the look of the sites without my consent.

If I somehow could place ad links on all the government sites that they didn't authorize, how soon do you think they would label me a hacker and shut me down? It wouldn't matter if I hacked into their site, or created a browser plug-in and gave it secretly to tons of users.

But, since this is done in the name of business I guess it's OK.

If I created a company called Duplitech Inc. and grabbed a bunch of popular and expensive software programs and hacked them so anyone could install them without having to register them and offered the hacked versions for sale at $5 each or 5 for $20, I would make tons of money. Since this is done in the name of business I guess it's OK. (NOTE: Some of you might think this is at odds with my article on hacking, but re-read it and you'll see it's not.)

Opting out takes trust
In Ezula's defense, they have a system where they can place domains on a "do not place links here" list. Being on this list keeps links from showing up on your site. So anyone who doesn't want links can just place their sites on this list and everything is OK, right?

Of course not. I dare you find out how to get on this list. There's no information about it on their website. There's information about this list in their install information, privacy policy, terms of use, nothing. There is no public place that tells you how to be placed on this list. If you can't find the list, you can't get off of it.

OK so you finally find out that in order to get on the list you must email with a list of the domains that you want no links to appear on. Well, now you have to wait and see if they place your domains on the list. What if they "forget"? Then you have to contact them again, and again and...

Also, what if someone downloads a local version of your site? Or what if a cached version of the page appears, such as in Google's Cache section? The links show up again and there's nothing you can do about that one ever.

Hypocrites in action
This is by far the crowning piece of unethical advertising.

Ezula claims that this marketing action is not intrusive to any website. They claim it's not hurting anyone to place these simple links on other people's site. Oh Really?

One of the phrases currently being sold is "online business", which happens to be on their own site at But if you have their program and look at that page, you'll find that phrase isn't linked.

Well, maybe it somehow doesn't meet the link criteria. Maybe there's two spaces between the words so it doesn't match. Let's look at google's cached version of that page. (NOTE: Yes this article is old. The cache no longer exists.)

Low and behold the link appears. Let's go back to their page and download a local version and look at that. Gee, there's the link again.

Ezula claims their links don't cause any harm to anyone, but they don't allow the links on their own site!!

If I sold some unethical product and claimed it was perfectly safe for everyone, but refused to use it myself, what would people think?

Is Ezula the bottom of the barrel? Unfortunately not. Will people and businesses stoop to lower depths? Yep. But as long as we let obviously unethical and illegal actions go unpunished, these actions will get larger and more invasive.

8/7/2001 Update

It appears that another company has been trying the "keyword sale" game. Gator sells keywords which create popup ads. This is being used to create popup ads at competitor's websites. For example going to would popup an ad for Delta Air Lines. The reasoning is this: Someone shopping the competitor would be a perfect target for promotions.

Here's a question: What if Chevy sent tons of people to stand outside BMW dealerships with bullhorns. Whenever a customer comes onto the BMW lot the Chevy people would yell through the bullhorn, "HEY, YOU THERE, ON THE BMW LOT. COME ON OVER TO THE CHEVY DEALERSHIP AND I'LL GIVE YOU A COUPON FOR $50 OFF A NEW CAR. I'LL EVEN DRIVE YOU THERE FOR FREE." Those people aren't on private property, they're just marketing to people just like these keyword popup ads.

I'd love to see businesses doing this. That would be great during lunch.


Maybe I need to start selling bullhorns. I'd be rich.


Who said that?

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