In one of the most bizarre scenes you'll see on the internet, a Target ad recently ran smack in the middle of Walmart.com.
The ad wasn't sold by Walmart, though. That's because Walmart.com doesn't even sell the ad space Target bought. But there it was, running in plain sight when Ad Age visited the retail giant's website late last month.
This ad was no momentary glitch. It sits at the heart of a scheme that uses browser extensions to place ads on the websites of some of the biggest advertisers in the world, including Walmart, Home Depot, Macy's, Dell and Samsung. These are forcefully "injected" onto sites and sold by third parties without the owners' permission. Those third parties pocket the proceeds.
Those behind this operation go by the name 215 Apps, sometimes known as Engaging Apps. They've built a network of browser extensions that promise consumers some sort of benefit, such as the ability to download streaming videos, but inject ads into sites across the web. Brought to Ad Age's attention by online video security firm Telemetry, 215 Apps hits some of the globe's top publishers, too, including Yahoo, MSN, Weather.com, YouTube and Yelp.
"This is an industry-wide problem that needs attention from all advertisers and definitive action from suppliers," said Geico marketing director Amy Furman after viewing a screenshot of a Geico ad running on MSN.com. "Some preeminent display ad exchanges and networks we currently use do not successfully block these ads."
"We are aware of it and we're looking at potential solutions," said Walmart spokeswoman Jaeme Laczkowski.
215 Apps lists its extensions under the name "Engaging Apps" and "Innovative Apps" as well. The extensions Ad Age downloaded listed Engaging Apps as a "Delaware limited liability company" licencing the extension. No such entity is found in Delaware's corporate registry.
Buoyed by brand dollars
Despite their concern, big marketer dollars are what's making this system profitable. Ads from brands such as Subaru, Dick's, Target, Lion King, Harvard Business School and Nissan appeared in an injected ad unit on YouTube.com within 10 minutes of a visit by Ad Age.
Ms. Furman said Geico does not intentionally buy injected ads and considers them fraud. "We employ tools to detect this fraudulent behavior and put that information in the hands of our large display-ad network partners so that they are better able to combat this practice."
But these partners are clearly not doing enough. Many ad-tech companies allow injected inventory -- which falls under the broad category of "toolbar" inventory -- to pass through their systems.