Solve Media's Captcha Ads are the Tip of the 'Brand Washing' Iceberg

By Erin Griffith , written on April 14, 2012

From The News Desk

More than 300 million of these things are served a day, so you've probably seen one. Solve Media's captcha ads are awesome and awkward. Typing in a brand message to authenticate your real-human-ness is somehow easier, yet more infuriating than solving the usual pile of scrambled letters most websites use.

It feels pretty dirty to repeat a brand's message back to it. But here's something even worse: Look at this Adweek story (about Solve Media, and from which I swiped the awesome term "brand washing").

All text after the first 75 words is blocked out. In order to see it,  the company's Google-powered ad machine requires that you share the story on social media. In the last month or so 99 people have tweeted it, 22 people have Liked it on Facebook, and three have posted it to Google+. There are other, more involved ones, like this one, where I must tell Adweek (and Google) whether I have a blog, and on which CMS it runs.

In some cases, I'll decide within a split second that it's not worth it and find the information I want elsewhere. In cases where I know the info doesn't exist elsewhere, I'll fill out the questions and arrive at my story feeling slightly pissed off.

Forced brand interaction is publishers' latest attempt to get us to actually pay attention to ads online. Banner blindness has been around since, well, forever, and advertisers have been trying to force us to pay attention in various creative ways since the invention of the click-through rate.

There is the interstitial, the takeover ad, the video ad that auto-plays, the roll-over, and even the somewhat useful ones which include commerce or, say, local movie times. But it's still an ad, and we are not there for it. Readers don't want to interact with a brand? No prob. WE'LL FORCE THEM!

Obviously it's bad for us entitled consumers of free content. But it's good for publishers, the business model-depraved creators of said free content. Solve Media, for example, has seen some pretty awesome traction. The company has more than 4,000 top publishers on board including Perez Hilton, the Meredith properties, and AOL's properties. (Laugh, but apparently new publisher clients regularly come in saying they've seen the ads on

That number grows by double digits each month. And 125 brand advertisers now run campaigns via Solve's Capcha ads, including Sony, JetBlue, Groupon, UPS, General Mills, and McDonalds. The company is a few months from profitability.

I learned the company's VC backing total is $9.5 million. That's happened across Series A and B rounds that included First Round Capital, NAV, and AOL Ventures and Bullpen Capital. The company is up to 35 employees. Canada-based NuCaptcha is Solve's biggest competitor, stating its solutions are offered on 5,000 websites, including Wordpress, and noting a very small list of clients including Cardinal Health and also Groupon.

Solve Media just rolled out video pre-roll ads, which give Web video publishers the ability to compete with YouTube. On YouTube pre-roll ads, users can usually skip after five seconds, meaning advertisers better make that first five seconds car-chase-level compelling.

For content producers who want to (this word again) force their viewers to watch the ad, Solve now offers a middle ground. Type the brand message in, and you can skip the ad. It's a guaranteed brand impression. I will not forget that I was forced to type "I'm lovin' it" in order to watch a Today Show clip 25 seconds sooner. But I do not, in fact, love McDonald's, so that brand impression -- while effective -- was a bust.

But never mind that. It makes publishers more money, because they can confirm the impression to advertisers. It's damn clever, and I hate it every time I use it. But as we're learning with the privacy debate, people won't leave Google or Facebook, even if they think the companies have nefarious intentions.

We are, perhaps sadly, willing to sacrifice a lot -- privacy, data, even, in this case, a small shred of dignity, in order to keep our content free.