Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pfizer is Responsible for 18% of My Spam Email!

This @pfizer_news tweet recently came to my attention:
"Pfizer, MHRA and partners anti-spam investigation FB page: #realdanger"
I have been following Pfizer's campaign against counterfeit drugs for some time (see, for example, "Was a Rat Harmed in the Filming of This Pfizer Commercial?"). This "anti-spam investigation" is the latest phase of that campaign.

The Facebook page offers the report "You've Got Life-Threatening Mail" (find it here), which summarizes a study that involved 65 members of the public who volunteered to donate all their spam emails to the security teams at Pfizer and the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency -- UK's version of the FDA).

According to the introduction of this report "Spam – or unsolicited mail – is a common way fraudsters target members of the public with black market medicines. In fact, nearly 25% – that’s 15 billion messages – of all spam emails advertise medicines."

"Gareth" -- just one of the "Spam Donors" (watch out for typos there!) -- received 87 spam emails, of which 18% offered medicine. Poor "Dawn" received 228 spam emails, 9% of which offered medicine.

I decided to look in my own spam folder to see if I received any offers for Rx products. That folder currently contains over 4,000 emails (1 week's worth). I searched this folder for any email that mentioned "cholesterol" and found about 27:

I picked one with the subject line "Cholesterol is not just a number." Here's how that message looked:

I wanted to "GET THE FACTS," of course, so I clicked on that and here's the Web site that link lead me to:

The first item on the list -- "Learn About Cholesterol and a Cholesterol-Lowering Treatment" -- brought me to (you guessed it!) this LIPITOR Web page:

It took me a few clicks, but I found that Pfizer is one of those companies responsible for some (OK, maybe NOT 18%) of the SPAM email that I get!

It's ironic that Pfizer is trying to alert consumers about the dangers of spam email when they themselves are responsible for some of this spam. Of course, LIPITOR is not a dangerous counterfeit medication that is offered without a prescription via Technically, therefore, Pfizer's spam would not qualify to be included in its report on "Life-threatening Mail." But it's still SPAM paid for by Pfizer!

I did a little more investigation to see if I could find out where my spam cholesterol email was coming from.

In the box at the end of the email is a "dotmedia" logo. That lead me to this site. But a note at the bottom of my spam email said "You are receiving this email from InterG Media." The top Google search result on "InterG Media" lead me to this WHOSIS domain registration data:

InterG Media
Domain Admin
1154 N. Sycamore Ave.
Suite 11
Los Angeles

Domain Admin
4600 Madison Ave.
Kansas City

I ignored the REGISTRANT CONTACT and went straight to BILLING CONTACT INFO to find "Adknowledge," the entity that pays the bills. On its website (here) I discovered that Adknowledge claims to be the "leading long tail marketplace." Here's more "About" them:
"Adkowledge, the fourth largest advertiser marketplace, specializes in performance-based marketing solutions utilizing its powerful predictive technology and completely anonymous consumer response patterns to connect advertisers with consumers across multiple channels, including email, search, domains, and social networks. With over 60 terabytes of anonymous consumer behavior data, our proprietary targeting systems run over 20 billion calculations per day to determine what ad to show to each consumer. Over 10,000 advertisers use the Adknowledge ad network to promote their offers."
OK. From this, here's how I see Pfizer being a perpetrator of SPAM.

Obviously, the money to pay for my SPAM email has to come directly or indirectly from the marketers of the products advertised, which includes LIPITOR/Pfizer. I don't think Pfizer is paying InterG Media, the entity that supposedly sent me the email. InterG Media is probably just the technical geniuses behind Adknowledge's "predictive technology." No, someone hired Adknowledge -- maybe it was Pfizer itself or maybe it was a "media buyer" hired by Pfizer (or its LIPITOR ad agency of record) to send ads to consumers via the Internet.

What's the lesson learned? When you get SPAM email -- "threatening" or not -- you have to find the "long tail" back to who pays the piper. As Deep Throat said "follow the money."


  1. Sorry to say, John, but this isn't a sinister Pfizer plot. Think about it for a minute, doesn't Pfizer (and any other pharma company) have enough problems without violating the CAN-SPAM act too? And, by the way, it must be Merck too, since their listing is the second on that page ( leads to the Zetia site).

    That aside, here's how this works. The real bad guy here is dotmedia. They are the ones sending you (I'm guessing) unsolicited emails.(PS: go here to file a complaint:

    The way they make money is off of clicks via Google. The "Daily Life" that you arrive at after clicking a link in the email is populated with paid Google search ads. Site publishers can opt to include Google ads on their site via Google's AdSense program. It's basically the other side of the AdWords program where advertisers create and bid on ad placement. Advertisers can choose to have their ads appear only on Google pages or to appear on 3rd party sites (or both). Pfizer, like most advertisers, choose both. Google get publishers to allow these ads (the same ones that appear with search results), which are served based on the content of the page they are on. Publishers get a cut of the money.

    According to Google, a click for an ad served related to the keyword "cholesterol" costs an advertiser $1.62 on average. If this ad appears on along with search results, Google keeps all of this when someone clicks. If the ad appears on a 3rd party site like "Daily Life", the publisher gets either 68% of the amount Google collected from the advertiser or 51%. It depends on the ad type, but is likely 51% in this case. So, each time you click a link on that Daily Life page, you're costing an advertiser (like Pfizer) $1.62 and making about 82 cents for the spammers. That's why they keep doing it. It costs nothing for them to send out a million emails and each time someone clicks all the way through, it makes them around a buck.

    Of course, what they are doing is also in violation of Google's policy which forbids creating pages with no content (or meaningless content) and only their ads, so you can report them for this as well.

    So, the real bad guy is definitely dotmedia here. The next bad guy is Google, who allows these sorts of pages to exist (remember, they make money too when you click on them). The victims are you and Pfizer. You for having your time wasted and email clogged up with junk and Pfizer for having their money wasted. Of course, if someone is genuinely interested in learning about cholesterol from one of these ads, then perhaps Pfizer isn't a victim since they've gotten a motivated visitor to their site, which is the entire point of buying Google ads.

    Now...go find some other reason to pick on Pfizer.

    Dose of Digital

  2. Jon,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    However, I still feel that Pfizer shares some of the blame here.

    #1: THEY can complain to Google about violations as well as -- or better -- than I can.

    #2: THEY can also put the "Daily Life" URL on an exclusion list in Google's Adword app -- I've done this myself. If they are too busy to do this, then shame on them. I suspect they are leaving it up to their agencies to handle this and washing their hands of any responsibility.

    And yes, other pharma companies are doing it. But it's always better to blast #1 in your headline :-)

    The money still comes from Pfizer and they are ultimately responsible for how that money creates spam, IMHO.


  3. Very Incisive, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jon,

    In response to my suggestion that Pfizer can put specific URLs on an exclusion list so no Adwords are served there, you said: "Yes, but each spammer has hundreds or thousands of URLs. It would take forever to run each one down"

    Fair enough. However, after doing some research on Google, I found this:

    "Managed placements are ad placements on specific sites in the Display Network that you single out to target. You can use the Placement Tool to discover relevant placements.

    "Placement restriction: You've opted to run ads on the Display Network but only on "Relevant pages only on the placements I manage." This is a network settings option on the "Settings" tab at the campaign level. With this option, your ads will only run on the sites listed under managed placements."

    It appears, therefore, that Pfizer has the option to have its Adwords run only on specific sites "listed under managed placements."

    Unless I am reading this incorrectly, that would "cut these spammers off at the legs."


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