Inside the Rise of Pirated Video Content

Inplace #2

ADOTAS — Pirated video content is the topic of heated discussion within a publishing industry that relies heavily on ad dollars to stay afloat. While many people log in daily to news websites to read and share articles and watch video, few realize the delicate balance of editorial content on websites and the advertising revenue that helps support writers and publishers who cover the news.

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, some publishers have been making huge profits by selling online advertising alongside pirated video content. Understandably, people in the industry are up in arms about this, and agencies, publishers and brands should definitely care, since their valuable names are inadvertently being called into question. Brands are being swindled twofold: They are forced to shell out more cash for the exposure alongside stolen “premium video content” and they are also damaging the reputation of their companies.

Tremor Video was singled out in the Wall Street Journal piece as having placed ads for a well-known, over-the-counter allergy medicine on a site that allegedly streams unlicensed video from HBO, Warner Bros. and other premium content providers. Tremor COO Adam Lichstein was quoted in the article, and CEO Bill Day issued an open letter to the company’s partners and clients to assure them that all possible steps were being taken to not serve their ads on such sites.

“In certain instances, such as the scenario reported by The Wall Street Journal, the viewer is knowingly watching pirated content on an unauthorized site,” said Lichstein in a subsequent interview with Adotas. “On such sites, the ad is running in an iframe or a page that is embedded within the illegal content. We may serve the ad, but we do so through a trusted partner, who in turn serves it to another publisher or publishers, who then place the ad on the site where the video is watched. Publishers may not be aware they’ve passed the ad to an illegal site.”

Tremor mentioned it offers the ability to block iframes and other sophisticated detection technologies, but the people who run nefarious websites are often coming up with new ways to circumvent these tools.

“The bad guys don’t stop just because they achieved one goal or not; they become more and more sophisticated,” said Zvika Netter, CEO and co-founder of online video ad company Innovid. “Whether it’s one method of fraud or the other, we, as a company that enables premium video advertising for the largest brands in the world, believe that any type of fraud is a serious issue that negatively impacts the performance of the campaign and, as such, needs to be detected and prevented. This is one of the reasons Innovid partnered with the leading verification vendors out there; we know that they can and will keep up with the bad guys and continue advancing their fraud detection capabilities. As an industry, it’s in everyone’s best interest to fight fraud and clean our act.”

Lichstein added, “We employ a number of fraud detection and prevention tools as any smart partner would, but we also make sure we work with trusted partners who take these issues as seriously as we do. Accountability and transparency are paramount to us and the reason we were the first video advertising company to include the Ad Choices icon on every single ad we run, enabling consumers to easily determine which company served the ad they are viewing.  Advertisers should take the same precautions, primary among them to work with trusted partners and clearly understand the steps they take to combat fraud.”

HBO had its unlicensed content streamed on the site to attract fraudulent ad dollars with commercials for brands like Honda and Lego.

“We work diligently to protect our content,” said HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson, “so it’s unfortunate that ad dollars are finding their way to illegal video sites, most likely unbeknownst to the brands involved.”

Last February, nonprofit Internet safety group Digital Citizens Alliance partnered with MediaLink to determine how much money these sites are earning. MediaLink analyzed 596 sites where viewers can find pirated movies and TV shows, and estimated those sites generate a total of $227 million in advertising revenue each year. Astounding, and yet this fraud been happening right under our very noses.

Programmatic ad automation technologies have recently been hyped as the end-all, be-all way for advertisers who aim to get their ads delivered to screens at a fraction of a price — and this is true, up to a point. Traditional means of ad buying and selling involved a tremendous amount of human involvement and spreadsheets, a tedious process that is certainly better managed through algorithms. And yet, handing ad campaign decision-making power over to automated methods has its drawbacks – less accountability by people and more opportunities for security threats and malicious code to wreck havoc on an already delicate system.

Lichstein said advertisers concerned about ad fraud should look for these warning signs:

  • Examine Browser Type: Ask video networks which browsers are being used and understand if delivery conforms to normal industry benchmarks.
  • Analyze Time of Day: If ad impressions occur at strange hours of the day like 3 a.m., there is a higher likelihood it’s fraud.
  • Research IP Addresses: Look closely at the IP addresses where ads appear to identify any unusual concentrations on a small amount of IP addresses. Be careful of misspellings in the IP address. Many fraudulent sites are just one letter off from legitimate sites.

“At minimum, advertisers must demand transparency into where their ads run,” added Lichstein. “It’s also important that advertisers are realistic about what exactly they buy (low-tier vs. high-tier inventory). If an advertiser drives down the price of inventory unrealistic levels and selects partner that do not run ad choices, they may very well get fraudulent traffic.”