The Perks Are Great. Just Don’t Ask Us What We Do.

by longformphilly

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 4.09.19 PM

Juliana Reyes | Backchannel | May 2016

The company seemed like the perfect place for Tyler. After working in the agency world, Tyler (not his real name) wanted to try a startup. He wanted a place where he wouldn’t be beholden to clients, where people would value his expertise. As he went through the interview process with 50onRed, a Philadelphia adtech firm, his excitement grew. The whole place just seemed cool.

“Like, man, this is a really nice office,” he recalls thinking. “Open floor plan, lots of really cool perks, the food. It just felt really modern. It felt like that startup kinda vibe I was looking for.”

He joined 50onRed, and the company more than delivered: not just weekly free lunches but also quarterly parties, all expenses paid, at trendy restaurants. He could set his own work pace. His teammates were talented.

But there was one thing he didn’t know about the company. Months after joining, he was shocked to learn exactly how 50onRed made money.

At first glance, it seemed like just another digital advertising company. It had built a platform for advertisers to buy ad space. Simple. But what wasn’t standard was how 50onRed got those ads onto websites. It used a controversial practice called “ad injection,” inserting ads onto websites without those sites’ permission.

The way 50onRed did that was through downloadable software, usually browser extensions, known as adware. “Adware companies resort to trickery to push their software to users,” explains Ben Edelman, a Harvard Business School professor and ad injection expert. Download a free Flash player, for example, and it might come bundled with adware. Suddenly, you’d see ads on sites like Wikipedia or Target.com — ads those websites never agreed to display and weren’t making money from.

If ad injection sounds duplicitous and unethical, Edelman said that’s because it is. And that’s being charitable: “Some people say it’s highway robbery,” he says. Ad injection hurts many players in the advertising industry, chief among them publishers, who miss out on ad revenue while ad injection companies make money off their content. “Adware reaps where it didn’t sow,” Edelman says. At the same time, advertisers feel duped when they pay top dollar for what they believe to be “genuine, legitimate, honest ads” and instead get injected ads, he said.

Adtech companies like OpenX and AppNexus see it as a quality control issue and have vowed to keep ad injectors off their platforms (OpenX told AdAgein May 2014 that it no longer works with 50onRed, and AppNexus spokesman Josh Zeitz told me the same in April). Google and Mozilla suffer because users associate the problem with their browsers. “Deceptive ad injection is a significant problem on the web today,” a 2015 Google reportreads. The company pledged to rid its browser and advertising platform of ad injectors.

And, of course, consumers hate adware because it slows down their browser, Edelman says. For the digitally illiterate, he said it can be torturous because it’s not always obvious what’s causing the problem.

50onRed says that its practices are above board. “50onRed has always been proud of our strict partner vetting process, and compliance guidelines such as those set forth by Google and Microsoft, appropriately labeled ads, and the ease with which users can opt-out of seeing ads,” the company said.

Regardless, Tyler was not pleased when a colleague finally explained the business model to him.

“Wait, really? That’s what we do?” he remembers thinking. “We’re that skeezy toolbar company that your grandmother installs that she can’t get out and she’s got seven of ’em and her computer doesn’t work anymore?”

Oops.

Writer bio: Juliana Reyes, a Bryn Mawr College graduate, became Technical.ly’s associate editor in 2016 after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. Between 2011 and 2012 she wrote about Philadelphians’ neighborhood problems as part of a grant-funded project between WHYY and the Daily News.

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