The secret story behind the weird images that are taking over the web

You’ve seen it. You probably never noticed it before, but it’s there.

Online advertising is a neat way for small businesses to make revenue on their product. Although it’s not the most attractive option, it tends to give you a fair bargain.

But then, out from the corner of the screen you’ve seen it – something that doesn’t quite add up.

Does this look familiar to you?

Wait. What’s that?

Let’s take a closer look:

I can’t adequately describe what I’m seeing right now, but I’ll give it a shot: Foot-woman and strange honeycomb fingers.

Unless you’re using an AdBlock tool, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The format is as irritating as it is predictable. The words sit underneath the bold black title “You May Like” with the name of the distributor sitting quietly to the side in a light grey font.

With sensational promises, strange come-ons, ads for dubious offers, and overall sleazy content, it’s surprising these things are legally allowed to exist.

The companies responsible typically describe themselves as “content distributors” aiming to deliver you “content you may like.”

But what are they really selling?

Is it just another harmless way to pull in buyers, or is there more to it? Why are these images chosen in particular, and not something less… bizarre?

Well let’s take an even closer look:-

This notorious image – obviously a Photoshop job – is advertised as part of a series entitled “9 People You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”

That’s right – “actually exist.” Already the cognitive dissonance you are feeling is enough to make you want to get to the bottom of this.

Clicking the link, which sounds like a huge mistake, actually takes you to the following Viralious article:

Wait – Viralious? Okay. So there’s no viruses, my credit card hasn’t been snatched from my wallet, and I’m still alive and well. Phew.

At first, it even looks as though the content delivers on all its promises… doesn’t it?

But take a closer look at the article.

Can you find our friend the foot-girl?

Where is she?

If she’s not one of the “9 people” who “actually exist,” then where does she come from? What’s her purpose?

It’s a strange thing to sit and think about. Why feature an image that’s not part of the actual listicle? Is this not in breech of the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising?

Well, let’s take another different example:-

Gross. Are those fingers? Is it some kind of weird skin condition?

Well, click through and this time the image usually does feature as part of the listicle. The alleged story – usually titled “My teacher Is Not Kidding” – tells us that it’s actually a form of corporal punishment.

Bizarre. Borderline insane. But is it true?

It’s very hard to tell. A reverse Google image search reveals only a horde of sites copying and pasting the same image, the same blurb, and the same story.

Whatever the case, it’s clear why the image was chosen. According to Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, “People notice when you put something in the space that’s different, even if it’s ugly.

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“This might hurt the brand of established companies, but the companies here have non-existent or negative brand associations, so it may be worth it for the extra attention.”

So it’s less important whether the story behind the image is true or not, and perhaps more important why the image is being used like this in the first place.

It’s the same story with foot-girl. She’s weird, she’s eye-grabbing, and she doesn’t cost too much to get clicks.

But what about the less bizarre? What about something like this?

Doctors are shocked? I’ve never heard that claim before.

Clicking the link takes me here, to a website guaranteeing you’ll lose 2 stone 5 in four weeks:

…and all it takes is one fruit!

Sounds like a bold claim, but if you take a look, there’s a personal testimony from someone who actually bought the product and tried it out:

Okay, it still sounds a little unbelievable. Who is this woman? What’s her name? Nothing the article gives me points to the truth of this alleged ‘story’.

Incidentally, a reverse Google image search actually shows the same image cropping up on a personal blog called Mama’s Losing It, apparently as part of a “30 day shred” challenge:

Notice a pattern?

Remarkably, she only seems to have lost only 6.8lbs in 3 weeks here:

So what’s it all about?

Well, again, whether the image was really stolen or not is perhaps less important than the role it’s playing here.

Notice how it’s not a professionally made photograph, but a self-taken portrait? Hell, it’s something you’d even expect to find on another woman’s personal blog.

According to Michael Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, it’s for a reason. “If the ad were too professional, it might undermine the illusion that it’s one man against the system.

“Ads like this often purport to be the work of one man, telling you something ‘they’ don’t want you to know.”

The fact that you find the same image cropping up on a “mama’s” personal weight loss blog is testament to this. These ads work on people who are already consuming this kind of information.

So the biggest irony is that folksy skepticism of the ‘big corporate’ world is the very thing producing its most perfect consumer.

Your mama:

Lastly, I know what you’re all thinking: No one falls for these ads. I don’t fall for it. My friends don’t fall for it. How are they successful?

Well, again, there’s a reason these ads don’t work on you.

It’s because they’re not meant to.

“If you’re a skeptical person,” Mr Norton says, “the scammers want to spend as little time with you as possible… Once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by email later and sell them other products.”

So when all is said and done, these tactics might be more malicious than they at first appear. They deliberately target and ‘screen’ the people most vulnerable and susceptible to falling for them, creating the perfect guinea-pig buyer.

Again, your mama:

They aren’t affecting you, but they could be affecting people you care about.

But what do you think? Are these ads hurting people, or giving them exactly what they want? Leave a comment and let us know.