If you’ve used the internet over the past year and a half or so—and especially if you’ve visited the front page of Yahoo in that time—you may have seen some strange, seemingly ESPN-branded stories about NFL stars getting caught up in scandals you’ve never heard about anywhere else and promoting the use of sketchy nutritional supplements. Earlier today, reader James wrote in to point out one such story:
Subject: ESPN Senior Staff Writers... writing clickbait ads
To: The Staff
Saw this ad from an ESPN link. They did nothing to indicate it was an ad. Interesting, especially since it’s basically accusing Brady of steroid / performance enhancer use. It MIGHT have come from the sponsor headlines section.
This story, carrying a byline from Senior Staff Writer Ryan Hasman and an ESPN dateline, details Tom Brady’s purported reliance on supplements he uses to “burn fat, pack on muscle, and skyrocket energy.” These supplements are so powerful, Hasman reports, that the NFL is considering banning them, putting the Patriots quarterback’s career in jeopardy, because using them in concert “makes athletes 150% stronger on average and triples stamina making it unfair to players who don’t use it.” In an impressive feat of gonzo reporting, Hasman even tries them out for himself; side-by-side pictures demonstrate the loss of unsightly fat (and chest hair) and gains in lean muscle (and spray-on bronzer) he attributes to their powers.
Hasman—who moonlights as a stock image of a businessman on a clip-art site—concludes that you should order these products through the links he’s thoughtfully provided. Commenters ignore the Brady scandal, focusing on their satisfaction with the products spotlighted in the article.
Unveiling the latest threat to Brady’s continued dominance was just the latest coup for the dogged Hasman, whose work on high-octane supplements on the verge of being banned by the NFL has implicated stars as big as J.J. Watt ...
... and Peyton Manning:
This is where you might stop and say that obviously this is some sort of weird spam; that Ryan Hasman obviously doesn’t exist; that obviously ESPN has nothing to do with this; and that it’s obviously not their fault if the internet advertising industry is run in such slipshod fashion that any fly-by-night huckster can buy a URL like espnexclusivenews.com or espnnfl.co, host a poorly mocked up version of an ESPN page with an attention-grabbing headline on it, and put it right on Yahoo’s home page. All of this is correct.
This is where you also might say that James and other people who are confused or fooled by this sort of thing—whether in the sense that they think this is legitimate ESPN copy or in the sense that they think ESPN is lending its name and a senior staff writer byline to sleazy frauds—must be dull as the day is long. This is not at all correct.
The thing about the internet is that most people (not you, of course; you’re cool) don’t really read most things, something that becomes quite apparent if you have access to any kind of analytics tools. They look at the headline, glance over the top paragraph, scroll for a second, and, unless their interest is really piqued, move on. This makes sense; most of the time, what you need to know, be it information or a sense of whether what’s in front of you is worth spending your time on, actually is in the headline and the top paragraph. In fact, putting it there is exactly what most journalists are taught to do.
This is why the shady firm responsible for these ads, which is aware that most people only vaguely pay attention to what’s on the screen in front of them and certainly don’t distinguish between sponsored headlines and editorial ones or even quite get what the distinction means, designs them the way they do. They know that lots of people, not paying any real attention to what they’re doing, will see something that looks like a legitimate outbound link to an ESPN article about a player getting caught up in a drug scandal and take it for exactly that; that some percentage of those people will have their interest piqued enough to click; that some percentage of those people will take it for what it presents itself as, or something close; and that some percentage of those people will buy their dubious products. By the time you get to that last group, the percentage must be very, very low, but online advertising, even on Yahoo’s front page, is pretty cheap, so as long as the percentage is above zero there’s money in it. The people wandering around vaguely under the impression that ESPN’s reporting has Tom Brady and J.J. Watt caught up in nutritional-supplement scandals are just collateral damage.
The main question here is whether ESPN is unaware this is going on, doesn’t care, or just has no idea what to do about it. A spokesperson hasn’t returned a request for comment, but it’s a pretty safe bet it’s the third option. If you know what to do about a shady firm that registers domain names in Iceland and uses them to host fake ESPN stories about Marshawn Lynch on fake ESPN sites that feature photos like this, you’re about the only one: