Ad Fraud Forbes Media Planning and Buying

Forbes accused of selling MFA media to brands under guise of legitimate ad space


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 4, 2024 | 10 min read

A damning new report alleges that hundreds of brands, including Microsoft, Disney, Ford and Johnson & Johnson, were for years misled into believing they were buying premium ad inventory on Forbes’ website when they were in fact buying space on a secretive, spammy subdomain.

Man looking at

A new report accuses Forbes of operating an MFA subdomain for seven years / Adobe Stock

A new report from Adalytics, an ad quality firm, alleges that Forbes systematically misled advertisers into believing they were buying media on when they were actually buying media on a secret, spammy ‘made for advertising’ (MFA) subdomain,

Forbes shuttered the site entirely on Tuesday following inquiries from The Wall Street Journal.

The site, which Adalytics reports has been serving ads since at least May of 2017, repurposed Forbes articles into longer formats like listicles and slideshows and exposed readers to unusually high numbers of ad impressions. While a reader on Forbes’s primary domain usually encounters between 3 to 10 ads throughout an article, viewers of might see over 200 ads during a single page view.

Unlike Forbes’s flagship site, the www3 subdomain did not have subscription paywalls in place and did not allow search engine crawlers to index its articles, making them inaccessible via organic search. Users attempting to access the www3 subdomain directly were redirected automatically to the main Forbes website. Roughly 70% of readers accessed the site primarily via display ads from other sites – many of these clickbaity ads are placed by content recommendation services like Outbrain and Taboola.

Hundreds of major brands bought media on – likely under the impression that they were buying legitimate ad space on These include Microsoft, Disney, JPMorgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, Mercedes Benz, Oracle, Fidelity, Marriott, Ford, United Airlines and many more.

A leader at one major consumer health brand says that 28% of the impressions that the brand thought were serving on, via Google Display & Video 360, were actually served on the www3 subdomain. The exec estimates that the numbers are similar across other demand-side providers that the brand uses, including Amazon and The Trade Desk.

The source says that the revelations of the new report feel like a slap in the face considering that the company has put in a concerted effort in the last few months to move its media investments away from cheap CPMs and low quality media. Ads on MFA sites are often seen as poor quality media due to the low journalistic standard of the adjacent content and the approach bombarding audiences with hundreds of ads within a short period of time.

Additionally, Adalytics observed a number of leading ad agencies transacting on the www3 subdomain – including Omnicom Media Group, Publicis’ Starcom, Havas, IPG’s Kinesso, Dentsu’s Accordant, GroupM’s Mindshare, Horizon Media, Stagwell’s Gale and others.

“The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) recommends that brands focus on buying direct from trusted publishers,” Krzysztof Franaszek, Adalytics’ founder and chief executive, tells The Drum. “But this research suggests that not even that commendable approach is sufficient to protect brands’ media investments from ‘made for advertising’ inventory.”

Following the revelation of the scheme, one media buyer told Adalytics: “Assuming I was OK with buying the MFA version of Forbes (which I’m not), I would certainly not pay the same CPM for these two drastically different ad experiences. By misdeclaring the URL, buyers are unknowingly overpaying and deserve refunds for anything that was incorrectly declared.”

Not only were many advertisers paying for what they believed was premium ad inventory on Forbes’s main site, but their ads, when served on the www3 subdomain, were unlikely to be reaching their target audiences. Visitors of the www3 subdomain, compared with the main Forbes domain, skewed older. For many brands, these readers represent less desirable audiences for their messages.

Some media buyers who explicitly blocked the subdomain still had their ads served on the site.

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Forbes, however, defends its credibility as an ad publisher. “The subdomain was developed as an alternative means to consume existing content and represents only about 1% of Forbes’s overall user base,” a company spokesperson told The Drum. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards and have always strived to build and operate the best media platforms in the industry. Because we value the trust of our partners and we want to eliminate any potential confusion, we have chosen to shut down the subdomain, which is an insignificant part of our business.”

The Wall Street Journal this morning reported that Forbes said adtech firm, which handles the publication’s media bidding, was responsible for misleading advertisers., meanwhile, told the Journal that an error in its systems was responsible for telling media buyers that they were transacting on when they were actually bidding on ad space on the subdomain.

At the time of publishing, had not responded to The Drum’s request for comment.

The Forbes spokesperson did not deny any of the claims made in the Adalytics report. They said, however, that The Wall Street Journal’s story is “deeply misleading and misrepresents the scope and operation of a legacy Forbes sub-domain.” Forbes was not given an advanced copy of the report before it was published, and is in the process of reviewing it.

Some industry leaders say that Adalytics’ findings evidence the widespread issues of ad fraud and poor media quality across the industry.

One media buyer decries the shortcomings of ad verification and fraud detection firms, whose job it is to identify and resolve issues of poor media quality for buyers. They say it’s especially concerning considering that many of these companies are publicly traded and generate upwards of $1bn in revenue annually.

According to the Adalytics report, no Trustworthy Accountability Group-certified or Media Rating Council-accredited ad verification vendors appear to have detected Forbes’s practice of misdirection or alerted media buyers to the misrepresented subdomain inventory.

Forbes relies on IAS, DoubleVerify and Oracle Moat for ad verification on its primary site, according to the report. However, the company wasn’t found to be running these providers’ Javascript code on the subdomain, suggesting that Forbes purposefully obscured media on the www3 site from being flagged as potentially problematic to advertisers.

“Ad fraud is only growing more sophisticated. This requires buyers to acknowledge the challenge and stand up to it, both publicly and privately,” says Jay Friedman, the chief executive officer at Goodway Group, a company was found to be unknowingly transacting on

The insider we spoke with at a consumer health brand said that it wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that other reputable publishers are secretly operating MFA versions of their sites to swindle media buyers out of more dollars.

About 15% of all ad spend goes to MFA sites – totaling nearly $10bn – according to research from ANA published last year. The trade body also determined that 21% of all impressions come from ads on such sites.

When asked whether he’d consider buying media on Forbes’s site in the future, Friedman tells The Drum that Goodway Group will “closely watch Forbes’s responses and actions in the coming months to hopefully include them back in this category as a valuable publication for brands to connect with consumers.”

He stresses that, for media buyers, “trustworthy news is needed now more than ever.”

Still, Adalytics’ Franaszek sees dangerous implications for the digital ad ecosystem at large in the company’s findings. “If a large US publisher can have misdeclared page data submitted to ad auctions for years without anyone apparently flagging or stopping it,” he says, “this raises concerns about whether brands can rely on the data [that’s been] presented to them for years.”

Adalytics has made it a point to investigate and expose bad behavior in the world of adtech. Last month, the company published research suggesting that demand-side and supply-side providers are not doing enough to limit MFA transactions. And last year, Adalytics put Google under the gun with two reports about the company’s online advertising practices and the quality of its media.

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