Advertising campaigns of big-name brands are increasingly popping up on Asian websites that sell counterfeit goods, thereby potentially harming these companies’ reputations and exposing them to online criminal activities.
Experts believe that the automated online advertising networks that efficiently create and distribute such advertising campaigns provide the companies with essentially no control over which websites they appear.
A study by Paul Watters, a professor of information technology at Massey University in New Zealand, found that certain advertising networks position mainstream ads on Asia’s leading piracy sites – sites that also happen to run campaigns for illegal gambling, malware and pornography. Watters noted that, “I am shocked sometimes by what I observe online.”
His research looked at 9,000 known piracy sites from several Asian markets. The findings showed more than 1,600 ads from legitimate businesses were found on those sites. For example, an advertising campaign from U.S. company Quaker Oats was found on a Chinese website selling knockoff goods. Ads for luxury designer Saint Laurent Paris were found on a website hocking pirated movies.
Duncan Trigg, the vice-president for marketing analytics firm comScore, opined that this type of advertising “made illegal websites look legitimized,” while damaging the brands’ reputations.
Watters then examined some of the code underlying the ads to determine which network they originated. His found that many prominent advertising networks were involved, including those run by Google.
Authorities in the United States and western Europe are trying to tackle the problem. Last year, London’s police force began replacing advertisements on copyright-infringing websites with official “force banners,” warning users that the website was under criminal investigation. It also created a blacklist of illegal websites to notify online advertising agencies where they should not place their ads.
Watters noted that several piracy websites use domain hijacking to appear legitimate and trick people into visiting them.