Alliance of Search Advertisers Has Familiar Ring

The Alliance Against Bait and Click includes firms and individuals whose names have become synonymous with the fight against the use of trademarked terms to target online ads.

Companies worried about the use of their brand names in competitors’ ads typically have put their energy and money toward influencing legislation or filing lawsuits. But — even as it monitors movement on a Utah search ad bill — a young collective of concerned search advertisers aims to raise awareness among consumers.

The Alliance Against Bait and Click (AABC) includes companies and individuals whose names have become synonymous with the fight against the use of trademarked terms to target online ads, including 1-800 Contacts, Wharton Business School Professor Eric Clemons, and Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman.

The AABC has set its sights on search engines, hoping to expose scam ads or “scads,” its term for sponsored search results that are targeted using competitors’ brand names. Google and other search firms allow advertisers to target sponsored search results based on competitors’ names, or in some cases, include competitive brand names in ad copy. However, in taking its case to the public, the AABC wants to convince consumers that the practice is just plain wrong.

The organization was started last summer as a collective of travel companies including InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott International, and Starwood Hotels. “They realized that the way to get this resolved is to let consumers know about it because taking on Google in a lawsuit is financially almost impossible,” said AABC spokesperson Jarrod Agen, who also serves as senior account supervisor at SS+K, a communications agency that works for corporate, advocacy, and political clients. The agency was commissioned by the group to help raise awareness among consumers, said Agen. The organization meets every few months via phone or in-person.

Just how successful the AABC has been in raising awareness is unclear. The group allows consumers to share stories on its Web site about deceptive ad experiences, but there are just four such stories there. Its preferred method of message dissemination seems to be through earned media reports. It published a video with online shopping tips in December, and got media coverage around a Valentine’s Day related effort. A February story mentioning the group warned readers about scads, noting, “These bogus ads make unauthorized use of popular brand names — such as Tiffany, Godiva, and Westin Hotel — mixed with outrageous claims to lure online shoppers, especially around holidays.”

A June 2008 Wall Street Journal article mentioned AABC members Marriott, IHG, and Northwest Airlines as examples of firms that “say the use of their names and slogans in the text of other companies’ search ads confuses potential customers and increases their cost of doing business.” The article, which did not mention the alliance, also noted that Clemons said so-called “piggybacking” will lead to higher search keyword costs.

Search advertiser 1-800 Contacts has filed a variety of trademark-related lawsuits against competitors. The contact lens purveyor came on board with the AABC after its formation, along with Rosetta Stone, ResortQuest, Hyatt, and others “through different connections through the digital marketing community,” according to Agen. 1-800 has battled against Google, Yahoo, and others in its home state of Utah in support of search ad legislation that would prevent advertisers from using competitors’ brands to aim ads at users. The bill currently is stalled in the state senate.

Rosetta Stone hopes to stave off software pirates employing its brand name to sell illegal versions of its language software, said Michael Wu, the firm’s general counsel. “I do think we’re gaining some traction in raising awareness about this issue,” he said.

“They’re all premium brands…and yet they get pulled into these kinds of advertising scams where they get people pretending to be them or trading on their trademark names,” said AABC member Ben Edelman, who has published results of his own studies exposing companies promoting ad-driven spyware or enabling ads he considers deceptive. In March, Edelman published an article supporting the Utah legislation, and suggesting it should be enacted nationally.

AABC members are “watching very closely the bill in Utah,” said Agen.

Google, Yahoo, AOL, eBay, and others have formed their own coalition to oppose statewide legislation that could negatively affect their businesses — including the Utah search ad bill.

Clemons, the other non-corporate AABC member, calls his association with the group “peripheral at best.” But he told ClickZ News, “I do support their goals, at least as I understood them shortly after their formation.” Clemons caused a stir in March with his guest post on TechCrunch arguing that online advertising will fail. In the controversial post, he referred to Google’s business model as: “Misdirection, or sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching.” He also wrote a post for the tech site recently entitled, “What an Antitrust Suit Against Google Might Look Like.”

“Both [Edelman and Clemons] were well-known experts in this area individually,” said Agen. “They’ve had different connections with some of the members in the past…We reached out to them to see if they’d be interested [in joining AABC] and they were.” Clemons and Edelman each told ClickZ News they have not been paid by AABC; Agen also confirmed neither is being paid for his participation in the organization. Clemons is a fellow with IT advisory outfit Cutter Consortium, and lists InterContinental Hotels Group — an AABC member — as a previous client in his bio on the Cutter Web site.

The AABC has no immediate initiatives planned, but Agen said the group expects to devise “consumer-based media pushes as far as building awareness around travel for the summer.”

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