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Desktop Ads: Rules of Engagement

  |  December 13, 2001   |  Comments

Permission to come aboard? That's only the beginning of what separates scumware from legitimate ad-serving applications that take up residence on your hard drive.

Last week, I discussed "scumware" -- applications that sneak their way onto hard drives and display ads without user consent. I mentioned Gator when describing the problem created by these nefarious apps. In doing so, I attempted to provide readers with a reference point on ad-serving desktop software, but I wasn't trying to paint Gator with the same brush as some of the applications I mentioned. (I probably could have handled that with a bit more finesse.)

So let me be perfectly clear: Gator is not a scumware application. Here is my definition of a scumware application. It is a program that serves pop-up advertising on a user's computer and is characterized by the following:

  • A distribution strategy that places the application on users' desktops without taking appropriate steps to obtain permission

  • Functionality that adds little or no value beyond serving ads to a user

  • Advertising displayed without branding or attribution to who served it

An application such as Gator doesn't fall under this definition. Gator seeks permission and provides additional value (e.g., a form completion tool), and all ads are branded by Gator.

The difference, in my opinion, between scumware and Gator is the notion of express consumer permission to occupy a piece of desktop real estate. Gator is visible on the desktop and can be uninstalled. Scumware apps skirt the permission issue and hide deep within the system, often taking measures to counter uninstall attempts. Scumware acts not unlike a computer virus.

We've all read the announcements regarding Gator and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) making peace and resolving to work toward a constructive solution to issues some publishers have with Gator. One way Gator is assisting the IAB is through participation in a special technology task force. An issue under discussion for inclusion on the task force agenda is the so-called "rules of engagement" for software that serves advertising. Gator will advise the IAB with respect to how such applications should seek permission and disclose the value proposition (e.g., an application might serve targeted ads in exchange for providing a user with useful functionality). Ultimately, such guidelines could serve as a road map for advertisers when determining which desktop advertising vehicles to support and which to avoid.

This is a giant step in the right direction. Any application that changes a user's experience must seek permission to do so, particularly if it serves advertising. The online advertising industry will not survive, much less retain respect from users, if rogue applications serve ads without explicit user permission. Remember -- advertising is only half of the equation with respect to the implied contract between a publisher (or a programmer in some cases) and the consumer. We must maintain an exchange of value if advertising is to work on the Web.


Tom Hespos

Tom Hespos heads up the interactive media department at Mezzina Brown & Partners. He has been involved in online media buying since the commercial explosion of the Web and has worked at such firms as Young & Rubicam, K2 Design, NOVO Interactive/Blue Marble ACG, and his own independent consulting practice, Underscore Inc. For more information, please visit the Mezzina Brown Web site. He can be reached at thespos@mezzinabrown.com.

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