Digital ads have been creating some new types of problems for brands over the past few years. Bots and fraud have siphoned away ad dollars while providing no value. Some high-profile sites found their target could be tagged as "adult and inappropriate," resulting in the loss of ad revenue. Then there's the whole question of how many influencer marketers have fake followings, wasting the money they receive from brands.

Well, things are worse than we thought. A new study by the Times of London found that some big brands saw their names paired with terrorism and white supremacy content. And other developments show that the level of ad fraud is even higher than once believed. Just when you thought that online ads were a help to your bottom line, you find they're supporting a bottomless pit of problems.

The Times piece minced no words:

Advertisements for hundreds of large companies, universities and charities, including Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Marie Curie, appear on hate sites and YouTube videos created by supporters of terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Combat 18, a violent pro-Nazi faction.
The practice is likely to generate tens of thousands of pounds a month for extremists. An advert appearing alongside a YouTube video, for example, typically earns whoever posts the video $7.60 for every 1,000 views. Some of the most popular extremist videos have more than one million hits.

Ugly appearances

An example was Sandals Resorts, whose ad appeared next to video for Shabab, the East African branch of al Qaeda. White supremacist group promotional videos were paired with ads for Honda, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Thomson Reuters, among others.

Google took down some of the videos and provided the Times with the following statement:

When it comes to content on YouTube, we remove flagged videos that break our rules and have a zero tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred.
Some content on YouTube may be controversial and offensive, which is why we only allow advertising against videos which fall within our advertising guidelines.
Our partners can also choose not to appear against content they consider inappropriate, and we have a responsibility to work with the industry to help them make informed choices.

Concern about being paired with content an advertiser considers inappropriate is an old problem. But it used to be more easily controlled, as media buyers would indicate preferences and demands and the human beings that laid out publications accommodated them.

However, online advertising is driven by automated buying and placement. Mistakes can happen more easily and, given the vast nature of the display landscape, more readily escape detection.

Then there's ad fraud

You assume no ill will on the part of anyone when it comes to inappropriate ad pairing. But the problems with ad fraud and scamming have grown precipitously. According to a report by ZDNet security writer Zack Whittaker, Google had a problem this week with spoofed Amazon ads appearing in its search results.

The good news is that unlike other rogue ads, your machine wasn't infected or served malware in any way.
But anyone who clicked on it would not have been sent to Amazon.com as they would have hoped, but instead, they were pointed to a fake Windows support scam posing as Microsoft.
From there, scammers would have tried to trick the user into calling a number for fear that their computer was in fact infected with malware.

Google allegedly told ZDNet that it does not comment on individual ads. I have a request in for comments on both situations and will update this post with any additional information.

And there's an even bigger problem: the general questionable nature of digital ad placements, period. In a speech at an Interactive Advertising Bureau event, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer for Procter & Gamble, while having some praise for the potential of digital ads and the possibility for "magnificent works of craft," talked of a "dark side" and said, "At the same time, we've seen an exponential increase in, well, crap."

"We serve ads to consumers through a nontransparent media supply chain with spotty compliance to common standards, unreliable measurement, hidden rebates, and new inventions like bots and methbot fraud," Pritchard said. P&G will stop paying for digital ads that don't meet its standards.

P&G claims to be the largest advertiser in the world. Even if not, it's a giant, and it's likely you'll see other big companies start to actively reassess digital ads and what they're getting from them.

Entrepreneurs need to find ways to do the same. Don't meekly accept claims of where your ads appear. Digital should be easily traceable. Demand proof. Run tests to see how much benefit you get. Put your budget into high-quality sites that have shown value and reach your audience. Turning your eyes from scamming as part of the price of a cheap campaign does you no good and wastes your money.

Published on: Feb 9, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.