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The insidious nature of internet marketing

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We are used to seeing some pretty ridiculous stuff on the internet, including more than a few outlandish get-rich-quick marketing schemes. It is easy to dismiss much of it as harmless, thinking, “who would fall for that?” But a closer analysis of how these marketing schemes work, and who benefits and who suffers, might stir different reactions – such as anger towards the insidious nature of unethical internet marketing. There are a few dubious offers on the internet about “cures” for stuttering. The most prevalent is the Kill Your Stutter offer, a program that guarantees to cure stuttering in ten minutes upon the purchase of an e-book.

Clickbank

clickbank The Clickbank site

KYS operates through a website called Clickbank, an on-line marketing company. The site describes its services as “order processing, fraud prevention, and customer support for digital products like an e-book.” A person with a digital product to sell, usually an e-book, can sign up as a vendor after approval by Clickbank and a $49.95 fee, and can then place a product on the company marketplace.

Once on the marketplace, these products are promoted by “affiliates” who  promote products with search engine ads. The affiliates get up to 75% commission on the products that are sold by clicking through their ads.

This is how the notorious “Kill Your Stutter” product was launched. (Although the name “Ari Kreitberg” is officially attached to the product, we know that the site domains for KYS are owned by a Canadian living in Unionville, Ontario named Arjun Lal.) There are other “treatments” for stuttering on the site, but KYS is the most prevalent.

Vendors and affiliates and wild, unsubstantiated claims

A google search for “Kill your Stutter” shows the hundreds of affiliate sites that have sprung up promoting this offer. But I found the log of an interesting discussion from 2009 on the RedHatForum, shortly after KYS was put on the Clickbank marketplace. The KYS vendor (Kreitberg/Lal) is trying to promote the product to affiliates. He states “Stuttering is a speech problem which affects millions of people, and this niche market is very hungry. There are limited products for stuttering online and this is only the THIRD stuttering product found on Clickbank. I look forward to making money with you!

To entice affiliates to promote the product, he posts “conversion rates” (data that demonstrates the number of sales an affiliate site makes per click) and sales figures from Clickbank. The data he posts indicate sales of about 10 units per week, with the affiliate making approximately thirty dollars each sale. There is only one instance of the product being returned for a refund. This data is from 2009, the product has been sold for almost three years since. Currently the product is being sold for $67. A year ago it was $53, and the rise in price probably indicates that sales are being made regularly. The affiliates make 70%, which leaves the vendor $20 per sale. If approximately ten items are sold per week, with a very low rate of return, that means profits for the vendor over three years are in the range of thirty thousand dollars, for one product. Together, the affiliates are making more. This is probably a conservative estimate.

On the Kill Your Stutter affiliates page, that is accessed through Clickbank, the vendor further tries to promote his product to potential affiliates. Among the  claims: “Our stuttering program consists of high quality content and illustrations written by professional writers in collaboration with experienced professionals that specialize in natural stuttering treatments.” and “[the program] is the natural, permanent and complete solution that you can provide to the increasing number of people that are suffering from this condition.” Obviously these are not correct statements. (A "permanent" cure? Stuttering is “increasing”?)

What is Kill your Stutter?

So what is the product, exactly? From the reports on stuttering forums from people who have bought it, "Kill your Stutter" consists of very little. Even though the product illustration shows a box, indicating there might be some device inside, remember it is only an e-book. According to reports, the Kill Your Stutter program consists of a 4 page PDF file (with very large typeface size) that describe mental imagery techniques related to Neurolinguistic Processing (NLP). One of these, for instance, involves imagining an object in your mind, changing it to black and white, and making it smaller. There is also an exercise that recommends singing words. In most cases, people rarely bother to get a refund on the product even though they quickly realize it is not what it purports to be. This is, of course, what the sellers are counting on.

The perpetrators

This site has been reported on the Stuttering Brain blog by Tom Weidig. He is the one who first posted, through a letter from an American speech pathologist, the identity of the owner of the KYS site domain. The vendor is also marketing, through Clickbank, products that promise to kill your lisp, grow your penis a full four inches, or grow your general height four inches taller, stop smoking, stop anxiety, and brew beer.  The Stuttering Brain blog has also detailed the workings of the marketing scheme, and attempts by others to contact the vendor in his home in Unionville to confront him about the websites in question.

A google maps search of what is believed to be the vendor's stately suburban home shows a large swimming pool, incensing many who feel he has obtained his riches through unethical means. Weidig has also published other information about the domain owner and suggestions about how to discourage him and some of the affiliates.

Affiliate Sites

Every day, one to two Kill Your Stutter ads are posted on various random sites. Google alerts are hit daily by simply posting to the new sites.

So how do the affiliates work? Many claim to be “reviews” of the product, although the site has no real medical credentials, or even names of professional people attached to the reviews. Photos and testimonials are often included, but the authenticity of these are suspect.  On the Kill Your Stutter site, one testimonial is from "Jay Gould"; on the Brew your Own Beer Site the "master brewer" is named  "Jake Gold" – the creator isn't even very good at inventing original names! Some affiliates even post on stuttering forums, pretending to be stutterers who have tried the product and claiming it works, but fortunately are called out by suspicious forum participants.

Some blogs are aimed at parents, implying the product will help their young children.

An example of the sophistication of their knowledge of stuttering and it’s treatment, one site gives out advice such as “talking in front of a mirror more often can help greatly in treating the occurrence of stuttering.”

One site, in a blatant display of their lack of ethics, pretends to be a personal testimonial from someone named “Stephen Hill”. And yet the photo accompanying the article is unmistakeably of Dr. Gerald MacGuire, a noted researcher in the field of speech pathology. On another affiliate site, the ad features a photo of John Paskievich, a Canadian filmmaker who stutters, yet the photo is used without permission. To quote John, "I'm not promoting that bullshit!"

What can be done?

The fact is nothing about this is illegal in any criminal sense. Within Canada, there are no real laws to apply against the perpetrator here. Action would have to be taken through a civil lawsuit that is unlikely to succeed – because a full refund is offered, it is impossible to claim monetary loss. The fact that the promoter is disingenuous in his promotion of the product is not enough to convict him of anything.

However, one can certainly put pressure on Clickbank to kick Kill Your Stutter off the site, which would greatly impede the sales of this dubious product. They claim to abide by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. However this refers to copyright violation, not accusations of fraud. Clickbank does have a Report Network abuse or fraud section. I have sent a couple complaints to Clickbank through this link, both the fraudulent use of Gerald MacGuire’s photo, and the wording on the KYS affiliate page that claims to permanently cure the problem of stuttering.

Last month it was noticed that Kill Your Stutter had launched a facebook page. The Canadian Stuttering Association started attacking the site by marking it with the “report as spam” alert.  For whatever reason, the page has since been taken down. Maybe diligently harrassing Clickbank's Report Network abuse or fraud link might achieve something. So go there, launch a complaint. Remember that the point isn't monetary loss, (as the product returns money if satisfaction is not guaranteed) the point is ill intentions on the part of the vendor and unsubstantiated claims about stuttering. Launch a complaint, ask your friends to launch a complaint. Maybe together we can do something about this insulting and abbhorent marketing campaign that takes advantage of vulnerable people.

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