This Week's Agenda: Ads Without Content

  |  November 26, 2001   |  Comments

Internet advertising keeps pitching curveballs and posing conundrums we never even thought of in traditional media. Is it ethical when ads don't support a site's content? Dana thinks that question will be next year's hot-button issue.

In a recession, survival depends on keeping the customers you have. When others' survival depends on taking your customers away, ethics can take a back seat.

The cry, "You're stealing my customers!" has been heard across the land just about all year. It was "home-page hijacking" and other tricks from the porn trade in February, then accusations against VeriSign and SBC for various forms of marketing nastiness.

Brett Glass, a Wyoming-based technical writer, says he even got hijacked in a directory assistance call. He sought the number of a hotel chain from the Tellme voice portal but got a number for a third-party room wholesaler in Orlando instead.

"As the economy continues into recession, we are likely to see more and more instances of 'customer hijacking,'" he wrote, "in which companies -- perceiving their markets as a zero-sum game -- work to grab customers from one another in any way possible, regardless of ethics."

For many advertisers, the question may be more fundamental. Should they support advertising technologies that don't, in turn, support the cost of producing valuable content? After all, it's content that contextualizes and positions marketing messages.

That's the perspective from which I view two of the great controversies of this year in Internet advertising: Gator and KaZaA.

Gator, originally an electronic wallet outfit, began placing its own banners over other advertisers' banners on users' screens midyear. KaZaA, a Napster clone, licensed a technology called SmartTags that turned all sorts of words into hyperlinks, without site owners' permission.

Steve Shubitz, who runs the GeekVillage.com sites, has called this software "TheftWare" and tried to do something about it. Through a site he created called StopScum, he exposed these dirty software tricks and tried to get others to fight them.

"It's often called predatory advertising," he said, lumping KaZaA, Tellme, and Gator into one basket. "It all means the same thing."

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Gator are embroiled in a court battle over this charge (Gator is the party that's actually suing the IAB). But the real issue, according to Shubitz, is that Gator's rates are so low. It can cost as little as $5,000 to run a campaign with one of these technologies, as the cost of content doesn't have to be supported.

Shubitz hopes that the IAB wins a clear legal victory. "I don't think long term this will subside until the courts make a firm ruling, and people who provide technology are physically shut down," he said. But StopScum has gotten much more done by pressuring advertisers directly.

"It has subsided as each new advertiser came into these programs and experienced the wrath of the Webmaster community," he said. "Many pulled their campaigns." It didn't help that the technologists exercised no restraint on the advertising they accepted, causing other marketers to scurry away, he added.

You don't have to paste your ads over those of others to raise questions. Consider a new program from iLOR called HydraLinks.

HydraLinks creates a separate window for links to ads or content, a window users or advertisers may brand with their own trade dress. The user stays in control, ads may effectively last longer, and no site's content is changed. But again, the advertiser's money isn't supporting the creation of content. It supports iLor software and the systems used to track its use.

The real problem may not be obliterating ads with other ads. It may be the desire of advertisers to get their messages out without supporting the cost of the content those ads run against. That's a problem we will grapple with in 2002 -- and beyond.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Blankenhorn

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.

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