Advertisers flee Stickam video chat site over sexually explicit content

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

When the Internet morphed from a computer geek's playground to the world's biggest marketplace, companies sprang up to help advertisers find audiences on the web.

But the automated nature of the process that tries to match products with the right demographic sometimes leaves it vulnerable to the kind of situation Stickam and its advertisers found themselves in this week.

Several said they were pulling their ads from Stickam after allegations it hosts sexually explicit chats and videos involving teens.

Stickam is a interactive video chat site that bills itself as the largest live community online. It claims nine million registered users, six million monthly visitors and three million daily page and streams views daily. It also says the Nielsen rating agency named it the top video destination for teens.

It sounds like an attractive proposition for advertisers such as Tim Hortons, Home Depot and the Bank of Montreal.

But CBC News reported a Calgary web specialist has sounded a warning about what takes place on Stickam.

Dan Rickard said young teens on the site engage in sexually explicit exchanges via live webcam and text, the CBC reported.

"I see ads for Canadian companies," he said. "And then I look at the site and go, 'Well!' There's nudity. There's bullying. There is some of the worst profanity you can imagine.

"This was all discovered in two hours. … As a father, it scares the hell out of me."

Rickard said he stumbled across Stickam by chance while researching how to do high-quality video streaming for business use.

CBC said the site's most-watched videos often show teen girls in their bedrooms, chatting and posing. These draw hundreds, sometimes thousands of young men, many of whom try to convince the girls to take their clothes off and perform sexual acts.

"If my daughters were on it, I would be extremely concerned," said Rickard. "Within two hours of being on the site, you will see things that shock you."

CBC said an evening of watching the site revealed that sexually explicit, sometimes violent language was common and that so-called most-watched live chats involved nudity. Mostly it was male users who appeared naked as they watched and chatted with girls, sometimes using explicit language.

One Stickam poster remarked "If it wasn't for us pervs, Stick(am) would go out of business," CBC News reported.

A Home Depot ad appeared next to a lingerie-wearing girl on her bed showing her behind, CBC said. A BMO video ad ran ahead of a young teen who had an audience of 13,000 pushing her to take off her clothes.

A Tim Hortons ad appeared above shots of a man's genitals, CBC said.

Stickam has figured in criminal cases, including a U.S. man charged with "sextortion" who convinced dozens of teens to perform sexually explicit acts, which he recorded and threatened to post on porn sites if they didn't do more. Another man was convicted in 2009 of sexually assaulting his unconscious girlfriend on Stickam.

Stickam president James Johnson told CBC News the Los Angeles-based company has taken steps to crack down on people abusing the site, and that half its 28 employees do nothing but monitor activity and can temporarily bar those who misbehave.

Many of the ads on Stickam are placed en masse by Google Adsense and other web ad-placement outfits. Advertisers set out their requirements and ads are placed on sites that fit their needs, CBC explained.

Advertisers contacted by CBC said they didn't realize their ads were on Stickam.

Rogers spokeswoman Carly Suppa said the telecom giant has since removed its ads from the site.

Home Depot's Paul Berto said its ad exchange blocks sites with inappropriate content and Stickam "is not where our customer is."

BMO, which uses the DataXu ad-placement service, will upgrade its filtering, said spokesman Ralph Marranca.

"In the meantime, we've taken Stickam off our advertising list," he said.

Tim Hortons also told CBC News it's instructed its advertising agency to pull its ads off Stickam.

Google Adsense also said it will remove Stickam from its list of sites available to advertisers.

Spokesman Andrew Swartz said Google has strict policies regarding content of pages showing Adsense ads, enforced by "sophisticated automated systems and human review."

But it raises the question how something as vast as the web can ever be effectively policed against abuse.

The problem isn't new, as this BuzzFeed post on badly placed ads demonstrates.