In 2010, Facebook made a reported $1.86 billion in advertising revenue. Large corporations such as AT&T and Verizon compose the majority of the top 10 purchasers of ad impressions in the U.S. version of the site. However, according to AdAge there was an interesting outlier in the group: make-my-baby.com. The site was ranked as the 3rd largest advertiser on Facebook, purchasing a little over 1.75 billion advertisements on the social network.
Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Make-my-baby.com was a website where you could add things like mustaches, glasses, and hats to a baby’s face. In order to use it, though, it required that users download a free plug-in. Here’s where the catch comes in: after ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick did a little more investigating it was found that the plug-in actually reset browser homepages and default searches to bing.com, the Microsoft search engine. Why? Well according to Kirkpatrick, Microsoft could have actually been paying the site to switch users from Google and other search engines to Bing. After Kirkpatrick questioned Microsoft about the practice they issued a response saying that they were unaware the publisher was not following their guidelines and that they had severed ties with said publisher. Interestingly enough, when Facebook was asked for a comment they replied that make-my-baby.com was never an advertiser on the site and that AdAge had gotten their facts wrong.
Regardless of the specific facts of the case, the example here still raises a significant question: When do online marketing practices cross over traditional boundaries and become deceptive? Andy Lark, a marketing and communications professional, wrote in a recent post that companies should have ethical standards for their affiliates, especially when online. It is clearly unethical to have deceptive marketing practices online, especially when users are having their browser settings changed without realizing it. Holding affiliates to high ethical standards means that parent companies can avoid potential PR scandals like this recent one.
A quick note about make-my-baby.com: The site was reportedly taken down on January 18th, a day after the AdAge article appeared and the same day Kirkpatrick began investigating. Now when users try to visit make-my-baby.com they are instead redirected to a different site called predictmybaby.com which has no hint of a plug-in.