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Badness Society

Avoiding the Frigid Hellscape of Online Marketing

An Internet Marketer Offered Me $100 to Betray Myself and My Community

Before I get into this story, I feel it’s important that you know where I’m coming from. But if you don’t care about that, feel free to skip the Background section.

Background

My blog, Dhole Moments, has always been available online for free and without any kind of advertisements. The only thing I might ever “promote” here are other furry bloggers, free and open source software projects, and anything cool happening in the furry fandom–and I won’t ever do so for monetary gain.

The ability to freely share my knowledge and experience with others is one of the privileges granted to me by modern technology. I’m further privileged to be able to afford to live through my career in computer security, and to never be desperate enough to have to choose between personal integrity and survival.

To be clear: My resistance to compensation here is simply to avoid perverse incentives, not to throw shade at people who lack the privileges I do.

It has to be known that I’ve been pretty open about my stance against paid promotions, from my 2020 year in review blog post to the absence of any payment information (Ko-Fi, PayPal.me, Patreon, etc.) on my blog. I certainly have those things, but they’re utterly divorced from what I’m doing here.

My attitude about gratitude towards anything useful I write on this blog (e.g. the Furward Momentum series) is simple: Pay it forward. (And if you can’t pay it forward, what good would a sense of debt do you? People care. You’re worth caring about.)

If you still have money burning a hole in your pocket, just make sure you generously tip the next furry artist you commission.

(Art by Khia.)

An Internet Marketer Offered Me $100 to Betray Myself and My Community

In March 2021, I received an email from someone named CJ Hankins, who purported to be an Outreach Executive of Wise Marketing (although their name is suspiciously absent from their “Meet the Team” page).

If you’d like to independently verify the authenticity of these messages, I’ve dumped the .eml files with DMARC headers into a zip file (including my replies).

In this email, CJ Hankins offered to pay me $100 to publish an article on this blog.

Hi,

We have read your content on soatok.blog and would very much like to contribute an original article for your consideration. The said content would be exclusively written for your site.

Within the article, we would place a reference to one of our clients and for this request, we are able to pay $100 (via PayPal).

Please let us know if this is something you would be interested in.

We are ready to send a draft or a sample piece for your perusal.

Yours sincerely,
CJ

[signature snipped]

P.S. Message sent through Gmail due to technical issues with my primary work email account.

If I were anyone else blogging about cryptography, I’d probably ignore the email entirely. If I felt generous, I might politely decline. If they persisted, I might reply with a hearty “fuck off” and setup a filter to ensure any subsequent emails from their company skip my inbox.

That’s the mature, professional, adult thing to do.

But wouldn’t it be funny if they tried to write an article in my usual style–complete with my usual smattering of art of my fursona throughout the prose?

Evil Laugh
(Art by Khia.)

So, naturally, I replied.

Hi CJ,

Do you have a draft available for what you would like to publish?

I’m also curious how well your intended post will fit with the usual style of my usual blog posts.

Thanks,

Soatok

(Background image derived from Johis’ work.)

If you’ll notice, I didn’t commit to any sort of agreement in my reply. I asked if they had a sample available and expressed curiosity.

Their reply came nearly a week later, and I need to emphasize something in their next email, so I’ll make it bold. (In the original email, it isn’t.)

Hi Soatok,

We are very happy you have gotten in touch. Here are the details of the next steps.

A professionally written and edited draft will be sent for your approval in the next few weeks. Please let us know if you have specific editorial requests or guidelines you want us to follow. Or if you feel the topic needs some work or adjusting. We will be ready to make any changes you see fit.

In the article we will need to mention our Online Gaming client. Another point is that the live article cannot have any label. If this is in breach of your guidelines, don’t hesitate to get in contact so we can figure out if there is any other way forward.

Warm regards,
CJ

P.S. Message sent through Gmail due to technical issues with my primary work email account.

Up until this point, I had already suspected that this outreach was an attempt at what marketers call native advertising. What I didn’t expect was for them to try to get their targets to deceive their audience.

If you’re not familiar with native advertising, this Last Week Tonight video is worth watching for a primer.

Even when clearly labelled, native advertising is deceptive, but in sort of a gray area way: If you’re keen enough to notice the label, you’ll realize you’re reading an ad. If you’re not, you might get fooled, but you only have yourself to blame for not being perceptive enough. This is kind of a bullshit argument, but humans are good at rationalizing their misdeeds.

Native advertising without any sort of label? That’s indefensible, even by the above bullshit argument’s standards.

I did not reply to CJ’s email, and they went quiet for a few weeks, until they finally delivered the proposed article for me to publish.

Hi Soatok,

I hope you are well and have had a good week. The reason for this email is that I now have the article to put on your site. Please see attached Word document file.

Please make any small changes to the text that you see fit, but we do ask that you keep the tone of the article and do not alter any of the anchor text. This article was written exclusively for your website and is not a duplicate.

If you agree to put this article on your blog/homepage, please do so as you usually would so that it appears at the top of the page before eventually being replaced by a newer article.

Please publish the content if everything meets your satisfaction. We will then do a final check and immediately transfer the agreed fee via Paypal.

If you have any concerns or questions let me know.

Cheers,

The attached word document was titled, How Cryptocurrency is Making Online Gaming Safer. The purpose of the deceptive advertisement was to promote an online gambling platform from a company called Foxy Games. (The document is included with the emails if you’re curious.)

“Sick fursona, bro.”
(Cropped screenshot of the Foxy Games website, which breaks archive.org.)

Who’s Running This Shitshow?

Foxy Games is operated by ElectraWorks Limited, which (in a twist that will surprise no one) was hit with a fine in 2018 for repeatedly breaching advertising standards.

However, Foxy Games is also a brand owned by the Entain Group. This split ownership model makes it difficult to pin down who’s exactly responsible for the unethical behavior we’re seeing here.

To make matters more frustrating, as noted above, CJ claims to work for a marketing firm (Wise Marketing) that doesn’t list them on their personnel page.

Even if we assume CJ is an actual employee of Wise Marketing, there’s no evidence that ElectraWorks Limited or the Entain Group is aware of the unethical behavior of their vendors.

But let’s be real (and, disclaimer, what follows is just my speculation):

This sort of corporate model, combined with the use of third parties, sure seems carefully constructed to minimize legal liability without actually complying with regulations.

The vendors do the dirty work. If one gets caught, then, at worst, the client simply terminates their contract and maybe issues a banal press release insisting they didn’t know and do not condone this behavior, and then proceed to change nothing else.

The fact that CJ Hankins isn’t listed could be explained by any of the following hypotheses:

  1. The webmaster is lazy and doesn’t update the team page frequently.
  2. CJ doesn’t actually work for them (either as an employee or contractor).
  3. Wise Marketing wants some sort of legal deniability to keep their contract with e.g. their client related to Foxy Games.

I don’t know which one is more likely to be true; it’s anyone’s guess, really. I’m sure the “my work email isn’t working so I’m using gmail” is totally legit.

Is Cryptocurrency Making Online Gaming Safer, Though?

No.
(Art by Khia.)

Cryptocurrency is not making online gaming safer. Also, there’s a huge difference between online gaming (e.g. World of Warcraft) and online gambling (which they insist on referring to with “gaming” as a euphemism for gambling, which is stupid and I refuse to do that).

I could speculate further on many reasons why cryptocurrency would be an attractive subject for gambling companies, but I ultimately think it has a lot more to do with blockchain hype and reaching new audiences than anything more strategic (e.g. avoiding retributive chargebacks from gambling addicts who bleed their bank accounts dry and run up a massive credit card debt trying to win big).

Bloggers Beware

For reasons I’ve explained above, I have no temptation to accept their offer of $100 to deceptively promote an online gambling client through an unmarked native advertisement on this blog.

However, I’m certainly not the only blogger they approached with this sort of offer. And I certainly won’t be the last.

A lot of people do blog because they want to make money online, and these kind of marketing opportunities can be incredibly enticing especially if you’re in a financially desperate situation.

But is $100 really worth sacrificing your personal integrity forever?

Is it worth it to unethically promote a platform whose operators have a history of repeatedly breaching the advertising standards of the UK’s Gambling Commission?

Personally, I’d rather pursue a career drawing erotic furry art for random people with increasingly specific kinks than deal with this nonsense.

Closure

As I started writing the draft for this blog post, CJ sent me another email.

Hi Soatok,

How are you? I sent our proposed article “How Cryptocurrency is Making Online Gaming Safer” last week. Did you receive it? If not, kindly let me know and I’ll be happy to resend the copy.

I look forward to hearing from you again. Have a great day!

My response (which will be sent as soon as this post goes live) is as follows.

Hi CJ,

In my previous response I had expressed curiosity and asked for a sample. I didn’t expect you to deliver the entire completed article for review without further discussion.

Upon review of this article, I must admit that it doesn’t live up to my strict editorial standards of bad furry puns or fursona art between paragraphs.

Given the reason above, I don’t wish to move forward with this transaction, and I’m not interested in the $100. However, since you put forth the time to write this post, I just might share it with the world for free.

Regards,
Soatok

Here’s hoping the entire internet marketing industry puts me on a “do not contact” list after this.

By Soatok

Security engineer with a fursona. Ask me about dholes or Diffie-Hellman!

One reply on “Avoiding the Frigid Hellscape of Online Marketing”

Fun fact: in a lot of jurisdictions, native advertising and other sponsored content that isn’t clearly labeled as such is illegal and can get the person hosting the native advertisement fined by that jurisdictions advertising watchdog. There have already been multiple cases of YouTubers and other online content creators who were fined by the ASA or the FTC for not properly disclosing native advertising.

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