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Digital Advertising in 2020: Clickbait & Deceptive Ads

January 15 2021 by Sarah Fleishman

Among other things, digital advertising in 2020 has been marked by concern and confusion. Conspiracies have opportunistically been offered to fill the gaps in information as the public struggles to understand the evolutions of the pandemic and how to respond. 

Clickbait—or content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page—is notorious for a lack of substance and truth backing up the tactics used to attract a person’s attention in the first place. 

That’s why the majority of clickbait ads are either desktop or mobile display ads.

Pathmatics Explorer captures clickbait in the Deceptive Advertising category, so let’s explore the data to better understand the role of clickbait ads in American media consumption for the year.

What did deceptive advertisements promote in 2020?

Unlike most industry categories in the Pathmatics Explorer, many of the top advertisers in the Deceptive Advertising Categories are not named companies or brands. Instead, generic lifestyle categories like Fitness & Diet or Power & Money Saving make up the top five spots. 

Looking below the top 5 in our list of top advertisers below, though, you can see that there are many exceptions.

The “Deceptive Advertiser” with the second highest level of spending in 2020 at about $30 million dollars follows this trend, promoting health topics like those pictured below, as well as quick fixes for toenail fungus and dark spots. In other words, classic clickbait material.

Looking at the top creatives in the Deceptive Advertising category as a whole, the content being promoted seems pretty typical of clickbait ads: anti-aging and health tips, money sweepstakes, and diet products abound. 

However, half of the top ten deceptive ad creatives in 2020 features home sanitation, immunity boosting, and body detoxification tips, seemingly in response to pandemic concerns. 

The purpose of these ads is usually either to sell a product, or to direct traffic to the advertiser’s own content website—so that they can then collect advertising revenue from impressions on their site instead of the original site the viewer was on. This begs the question:

Which websites are most commonly displaying deceptive advertisements?

If you’ve ever spent much time on yahoo news sites, you won’t be surprised to see three of its brands on the top sites list for deceptive advertising below. Facebook, YouTube, AOL, and weather sites account for the rest of the politically neutral news sites on this top list.

Taking the top spot with almost $20 million worth of deceptive ad placements is naturalnews.com, a news site known for promoting pseudoscience, far-right extremism, and a variety of conspiracy theories.

According to its about section, the Natural News site is “led by activist-turned-scientist Mike Adams, the Health Ranger.” It is home to many of the ads in the Generic Fitness & Diet Ads category in the top spot above, including the creatives pictured in this article for black pepper and turmeric powder, detox foot pads, and this one for “China Free” Non-GMO Vitamin-C powder from the Health Ranger Store.

Accompanying Natural News on the list of conversative-leaning news sites on the list of top 15 sites hosting deceptive advertisements in 2020 are The Drudge Report (6th place, $2.9 million), Fox News Digital (9th place, $2.4 million), and Breitbart (11th place, $1.9 million). 

Left-leaning news sites place deceptive advertisements, too: Huffington Post came in 21st on the top list with just over $1 million worth of ads placed on it and CNN took the 35th spot with $484,300.

The rest of the top 15 sites placing deceptive advertisements are Prize Grab, MediaFire, and NextDoor. Prize Grab is a site featuring sweepstakes for viewers to enter, MediaFire is a software company, and NextDoor is a platform for people to share insights and observations with others living in their neighborhood.

For better or for worse, advertising has become a major part of the media that shapes American thought. Explore the trends for yourself using Pathmatics Explorer.

About Author
Sarah Fleishman

With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.

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