03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Living In the Real World

The Wall Street Journal ran a story yesterday about a certain kind of advertising fraud online wherein rogue publishers will fabricate impressions by launching numerous, invisible web pages in the background of a browser session that consumers will never see but that can translate into inflated costs to advertisers. Burst was mentioned in the story as being one of the ad representative firms giving shelter to one such rogue publisher, Obviously, we hate it when that happens, on every level. As small consolation we booted the offending publisher back in January about the time, it would appear, that Ben Edelman, the source for the Journal story, tied into them.

iMedia Connection picked up the Wall Street Journal story today with the headline "Publishers Duping advertisers with invisible ads". Not far away was another story titled, "World"s largest click fraud ring shut down," which met its end thanks to the efforts of the people at Anchor Intelligence, a traffic analytics firm used by companies, including Burst, to combat fraud.

We are reminded every day that the world can be a dangerous place. The advertising world is no exception. As reporter Emily Steele points out in the Wall Street Journal story, verification has been a problem for advertisers forever. Online, she notes, the universe of web publishers is so enormous it can be hard to keep track of every ad position in order to authenticate the number of impressions served. Offline, authenticating the size of an audience -- print or broadcast -- relies on third-party measurement services such as the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) or Neilsen or Arbitron.

I used to explain to people when arguing in support of the increased accountability of the Internet versus traditional media how advertisers must take it on faith that so many trucks left the loading docks of so many printing plants to deliver so many copies of, say, the Wall Street Journal to so many hundreds of thousands of distribution outlets across an entire country by 6:00 a.m. Online, we just count impressions. I've made those earlier morning newspaper runs in the past while working at USA Today. It's an immense proposition, I can tell you, with a mind-boggling number of moving parts. But, the world has lived with it long-enough to know that, on balance, it works. I'd say the same is true about counting impressions.

Except when fraud happens, as it did several years ago when executives at various newspaper companies were caught inflating circulation numbers, with severe consequences for many. Or, as it happened with a dorm-room full of Chinese college students perpetrating $3 million of click fraud. All bad, unhelpful stuff.

I could, perhaps, end this post now with a message to always be cautious and look both ways before crossing the street because the world can be a dangerous place.

But, I can't. Sorry. The news that Chinese students have "wasted" $3 million, or that other unscrupulous types have launched up to 40 invisible pages impressions, while a sad reminder of the corruption in the world, leaves me feeling that more needs to get reported. The truth is not entirely out.

The problems in our world do not come down to a room full of Chinese students, and/or others with a talent for writing nefarious Internet code. The problems in the newspaper world do not come down to circulation fraud.

Always there are conditions that lead to the crime. Frankly, verifying what gets delivered has only been a part of our problem, and perhaps the small part. Of greater importance has always been that media -- old and new -- has never been good at being able to verify who, exactly, is viewing or listening or reading or seeing an ad. Likewise, advertisers have never been especially good at explaining to each other what happened as a result of the advertising.

From this were conditions made ripe over the years for the Internet to lead the entire marketing industry astray with false promises of one-to-one, risk-free advertising -- a bit of fiction that won't go away and that continues to lead advertising, on and offline, in directions that consumers have been told to fear, now, jeopardizes their rights to privacy.

We should despair over every act of corruption and drum-out the perpetrators. In a side-by-side comparison with a dorm-room full of Chinese college students perpetrating click fraud, however, the notion that the advertising business can be one-to-one and risk-free is the greater treachery. The fakes, the common criminals, the joy-riders, the conscientious advertising banner-blocking objectors, are small potatoes to the mantle of denial that drapes over the broader marketing business today. It drives media buying agencies into the very ad network business they are suppose to fear as a way to make a decent buck. It drives CMOs out of office on average every 18 months. It reasons that consumers should "accept" advertising as a necessary evil (as if that will ever be a bargain worth accepting). It wastes billions of dollars in missed opportunities. And it places a premium on counting clicks and actions and other measures that are so easily pilfered.

Advertising must live in the real world. Occasionally, that means dealing with the abuses of the unscrupulous. At some point, it also has to mean dealing with reality.