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.

Smooth sales-patter from Union Square's Gentleman Peeler

Here's a 2008 video of NYC's legendary Union Square potato-peeler salesman, Manchester-born Joe Ades, the Gentleman Peeler, whose patter was as smooth as the carrot slices he produced with his sharp little gadgets. He died in 2009, the day after he was notified that he had attained American citizenship. He modelled himself after "the patterer," the well-dressed salesman that were written about in Henry Mayhew's classic London Labour and the London Poor (this book also inspired Terry Pratchett's brilliant standalone novel Dodger).

If you regret not buying a peeler from Joe when you had the chance, here's the same "machine", though the price has doubled since Joe's day.

Food studio that makes edible fireworks, four-ton punchbowls, and floats a steamship in 55K litres of green jelly

Bompas and Parr are a London-based "food-nerd" studio that makes weird and amazing foodstuffs, including an edible fireworks display for New Years Eve that showered revelers with strawberry smoke, peach-flavored snow, orange bubbles and banana confetti. In a fascinating profile in Wired, they reveal something of their methodology and their portfolio, which sounds delicious and ambitious.

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Officemax sends junkmail addressed to "Daughter Killed In Car Crash"


Officemax sent junkmail to Mike Seay at his address in Lindenhurst, IL, with the notation "Daughter Killed In Car Crash" under his name. Seay's 17 year old daughter was killed in a crash last year. Officemax says it bought Seay's name from a marketing company, and implies that the company had made the notation in its list. It's not clear what marketing purpose this information was intended for (is there a sub-list for "bereaved parents" that's rented out to grief counselors looking for business?) or whether this was a one-off in a data-entry department.

Seay is understandably very upset. The Officemax call-center person he spoke to refused to believe him, as did an official spokesdroid. He's seeking an apology from Officemax's CEO.

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Devil Baby Attack: scary prank viral marketing video

Funny viral video of a scary prank in NYC promoting the new horror film Devil's Due. (Thanks, Kelly Sparks!)

How gender bias in games and geeky movies got there


Anjin Anhut's concise explanation of why gender representation sucks in games and geeky movies (see this and especially this) sounds solid -- if depressingly entrenched -- to me. Anhut's thesis is that entrenched sexism created a situation in which marketing was tilted towards men, and then market research showed that men were the majority consumers of geek culture (surprise, surprise), which led to an even greater male bias in marketing, and more research showing that men were the major customers for games and geeky movies -- lather, rinse, repeat. It's a disheartening tale of how gender bias emerges naturally out of a series of "rational" commercial decisions that reinforce their own flawed logic at each turn.

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Orange UK plumbs the depths of insulting, stupid marketing, finds a new low


I had the above-reproduced SMS exchange with a bot from my horrible mobile phone carrier, Orange UK (now called "EE" after the high-pitched noise my incipient aneurysm makes whenever I have to deal with them, and because vowels) today. They have "good news" -- I have been subscribed to "special offers" from "great brands" via SMS. And I can opt out. Except, surprise, it takes three weeks to process these opt-outs.

Not sure what I should do apropos of any "great brands" who pay Orange to spam me in the runup to Christmas: maybe just name-and-shame them here? Any other ideas?

Social media managers assailed

Mark "Copyranter" Duffy asks "Why are so many Social Media Managers dipshits?"

Today, many of the social media managers at large and important companies are, by contrast, not very smart ad men. To say that they regularly underestimate their customers’ intelligence would be a great understatement. They seem to believe their customers have the brain power of a baked potato. I’ve collected eight recent social media posts by large companies. Most of these updates are from the last month. To try to pick the abjectly stupidest one would not be easy. You can go ahead and give it a try, though.

Why we pay $1000 for a $20 medical test

Pap smears — the pre-cancer-screening that most women get annually when they visit a gynecologist — should only cost about $20 or $30, writes Dr. Cheryl Bettigole in The New England Journal of Medicine. So, why then, are more women (and/or their insurance companies) paying much, much more — sometimes upwards of $1000? A big part of the problem is add-on tests — extra screenings that haven't been shown to make women healthier, but do add a lot to the cost of an annual exam. Turns out, medical laboratories have started marketing these pap+ tests, using some of the same techniques pharmaceutical companies have long used to sell more expensive treatments to doctors.

Anti-robocall robot shows how compromising phone metadata is

Alan sez, "Nomorobo recently won the FTC's contest for best anti-robocall invention. It uses a feature of the phone system that's already mostly in place which lets the Nomorobo device get the call at the same time as you do, checks the calling number against certain spam signatures (e.g. calling blocks of numbers sequentially) and auto-disconnects the robocaller before your phone even can ring. Anyone who claims you can't do interesting things purely with phone call metadata has not thought about the problem long enough." Cory 10

One weird trick for sleazy marketing success

Armed with a cheap laptop and a pre-paid debit card, Alex Kaufman figures out what happens when you actually buy something from on one of those “One Weird Trick” ads. [Slate]

Neuromarketers can't actually control your brain

Neuromarketing is one of those ideas that might best be classified as "important and creepy, if true," writes Matt Wall at Slate. Fortunately for us, there's not really much evidence that marketing professionals can use fMRI data (or any other neuroscience tools) to manipulate us into buying stuff. Nor can they get unique glimpses of our subconscious desires. In the end, there's not much neuro happening in this mini-industry, but there is a lot of marketing.

Grumpy 1833 letter calls BS on car-maker's extravagant claims


Jalopnik's Jason Torchinsky discovered an 1833 letter to Mechanic's Magazine in which one "Junius Redivivius" spends two highly entertaining pages debunking the elaborate claims made by Dr. Church's Burmingham Steam Carriage Company about its forthcoming wares.

If that drawing be a correct representation of the vehicle constructed by Dr.Church, it is in itself conclusive evidence of his utter unfitness for the purpose of promoting steam locomotion... the thing looks like a car of Juggernaut, intended to be moved only under the influence of a strong internal excitement, rather than a vehicle intended for the purposes of everyday utility. It looks like a mountain, and a mountain scarcely to be moved. If there is one form of carriage more liable to overset than another, it is that of three wheels in a triangle...

...In the drawing all the wheels are of one size, and "Impartial" states them to be eight feet in diameter. Thus, the heads of the outside passengers, who are so comfortably and leisurely seated on stick chairs or benches on the roof, must be some four-and-twenty feet from the roadway... I fear the pedestrians would outstrip them in speed... and ask, as they pass 'what the temperature may be at that height?'

As Torchinsky notes, Redivivius was right, "Church's lumbering steam-beast did not, in fact, run as planned, and later reports suggest it only made one trial run, in 1835, for three miles before becoming damaged while making a turn."

This 1833 Letter Is The Very First Instance Of Calling Bullshit On An Automaker

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Official names of McNugget shapes

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McDonald's Chicken McNuggets aren't just weirdly-shaped forms of "white boneless chicken, water, food starch-modified, salt, seasoning [autolyzed yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (botanical source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid], sodium phosphates, natural flavor (botanical source), water, enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, bleached wheat flour, food starch-modified, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, dextrose, and corn starch." The shapes actually have official names: ball, bone, bell, and boot. And if you're in Canada, the "bone" is officially a "bow-tie." McDonald's paid for Business Insider to visit their corporate headquarters where they learned all about the McNugget experience from the McDonald's (Mc)Sensory Team." (Business Insider)

Weather Channel naming winter storms

The Weather Channel posted an internal marketing pitch, I mean feature article, about why they've deemed themselves the official naming entity for big winter storms. From the article:
During the upcoming 2012-13 winter season The Weather Channel will name noteworthy winter storms. Our goal is to better communicate the threat and the timing of the significant impacts that accompany these events. The fact is, a storm with a name is easier to follow, which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation…

This is an ambitious project. However, the benefits will be significant. Naming winter storms will raise the awareness of the public, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact and inconvenience overall…

Finally, it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users.

"Why The Weather Channel is Naming Winter Storms" (Thanks, Gil Kaufman!)