Inside a click-spam ad campaign

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I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories and their origins. I'm also fascinated by the real people behind click-bait and spam email scams. This story brings them both together.

Reporter Zack Beauchamp went looking for Frank Bates, the face of a "FEMA hates this!"/"The secret Obama doesn't want you to know!"-style online ad campaign that sells overpriced dehydrated food (and lots and lots of fear) to middle-aged conservatives. He quickly discovered that Bates doesn't actually exist. Instead, the company Food4Patriots is the work of a salesman named Allen Baler who was just tired of working in an office and wanted to run his own business.

Unlike Bates, Baler doesn't live off-the-grid. He doesn't appear to be under any threat from FEMA and/or the Obama administration. It's not even clear that he's particularly conservative. But Baler is making an awful lot of money pretending to be Bates.

I wouldn't normally link to ThinkProgress, which generally seems to exist for the sole purpose of getting liberal people outraged about things. (I'm not particularly fond of the Outrage-Industrial Complex, no matter which side is participating.) But this story is a fascinating look at what goes on behind the scenes of scammy ad links you see all over the Internet and I think it's worth reading.

Baler started dabbling in this field in his free time after work. His first foray — a campaign he refers to as “How To Train Your Pug Dog” — got noticed by his boss, who told him to choose between making cheapo pug training videos and his “multiple six figures” salary. Baler chose pugs.

The key to Baler’s successful move into affiliate marketing was something called Clickbank. Clickbank offers thousands of products, often some kind of informational guide, which affiliate marketers can pay for the right to market. The site accepts a wide variety of products in all kinds of niches,” so affiliate marketers, almost always sales people rather than experts in the industry they’re marketing for, may not be able to tell if what they’re hawking is actually good (in an email, Clickbank said that they use a “product review process” that “aligns with industry standards.”) From a financial point of view, it doesn’t matter: producers sell their “books,” affiliate marketers have something to market, and Clickbank gets a cut of the sales plus flat fees for using the service.

The 4Patriots empire grew out of Baler’s ClickBank experiments. His first really successful Clickbank campaign was Earth4Energy, a guide to going off-grid that he found on Clickbank — and one that many other Clickbank marketers hawk in various guises. If you look at the site, it’s basically identical to Power4Patriots, only with a different voice and different persona delivering the sales pitch.

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