Indecent Brand Exposure

By now, you’ve probably heard about Yahoo’s chat room challenges. During the last few months, three large advertisers: Kimberly-Clark, PepsiCo, and State Farm Insurance, pulled their advertising from Yahoo chat rooms because their ads were placed next to user-run child pornography chat rooms. These chat rooms were dealing with an ugly, illegal act. They were closed. Few objected.

Going forward, publishers will face a new level of scrutiny from marketers. What CEO isn’t going to ask her CMO whether their company’s brand appears in objectionable places?

We have a tough set of issues to reconcile. I advocate tolerance and free speech. I love the Internet’s openness. I fear the effects of broad-based regulation. Yet I run a digital communications agency. I want a vibrant, creative, growing medium, and happy, successful clients. If the medium remains as free and open as it is today, will it work for marketers?

Yes, but its loose construct will become more organized and segmented.

Digital communications are experiencing a renaissance as big dollars shift online. With money comes greater accountability. Context is important in advertising, so smart marketers are very deliberate about where they place their brands. And consumers are very vocal when they’re displeased. They use blogs, community sites, and user groups to help them gather information, shape their message, arrange boycotts, and distribute their messages to marketers and politicians.

How Did We Get Here?

In online advertising’s early days, the challenge was aggregating a mass audience. The audience has finally become mass, and advertisers are flocking to the Web. The type of audience media agencies and advertisers select is entirely dependant on advertisers objectives.

Direct marketers are most focused on campaign return on investment (ROI). They’ve tested and optimized nearly every tactic available. Often, the greatest success is found in such tactics as auto-optimized networks, behavioral marketing, contextual search, and community sites. These deliver qualified audiences. Advertisers only pay for results and often control price. The tradeoff is context control.

Will advertisers risk adjacency to questionable content in an effort to meet sales goals? That’s the heart of the issue.

Dealing With the Risks

What placement risks do online advertisers face? And what can be done about them?

  • Advertising networks:

    • Pro: Advertising networks place ads on a wide array of sites, offering marketers tremendous reach. Networks often have auto-optimization and pay-for-performance buying models, yielding efficient results.

    • Con: Most networks won’t or don’t always disclose which sites they place ads on. Or, advertisers don’t know to ask. The primary variable a marketer manages is channel choice (telecom, entertainment, automotive, etc.). Ads may appear on tier three sites or next to questionable content.
    • Approach: Ask for a full site list disclosure. Depending on your target market, brand, and placement philosophy, they can focus on channels less likely to feature undesirable content (e.g., porn, violence, or drugs) such as technology, electronics, telecom, and family/parenting.

  • Behavioral marketing (site content and via desktop applications):

    • Pro: Behavioral marketing allows advertisers to connect with in-market buyers who exhibit a specific behavior (e.g., visiting a third-party auto site, indicating he’s in-market for a new vehicle).

    • Con: The ad-placement trigger is behavior, which marketers can’t control. It’s still a network-like approach, so the same risks apply when the target moves on to another site. For desktop applications, the risks are greater as it’s impossible for marketers to control what a viewer does on his computer.
    • Approach: Only work with reputable behavioral marketing companies that disclose their distribution partners and will sign a contract stating they don’t accept adult advertising. Know the risks and clear them with your legal department. Arm customer service and PR teams with information to assuage potential customer complaints.

  • Search content match:

    • Pro: A user is in a non-search context and views a relevant text (or image) ad based on the content. This is a great way for marketers to target ads to more qualified prospects and extend search campaign reach.

    • Con: The technology isn’t perfect. Many words can be associated with questionable content (e.g., “bonds,” “stocks”).
    • Approach: Carefully consider your keyword strategies and work through the placement implications. If you’re uncomfortable with the risks, content match can easily be disabled so keywords are only displayed in search results pages.

  • Community targeting (targeting people in specific communities, such as blogs, social-networking sites, etc.):

    • Pro: Although these environments weren’t designed as placement venues, they provide an opportunity to connect with consumers in an intimate, relevant way.

    • Con: It’s impossible to control post content. MySpace.com was recently featured in “Business Week” as an important social networking phenomenon. Content is all consumer generated, though. It may not be an appropriate place for brands uncomfortable with explicit content.
    • Approach: Community areas can be an excellent place to engage with consumers and are a vibrant, growing part of the Internet. Marketers can reduce content risk by targeting specific interests. However, there’s no control over content or tone. Advertisers can choose to embrace this, or avoid it entirely. Be aware many blogs display content match search links. If you’re uncomfortable with advertising in communities, review your search strategy to ensure content match is disabled.

The Toughest Issue

Marketers will have to answer complex, challenging media strategy questions that really haven’t surface to this degree in traditional media. Some debates could feel more like Roe v. Wade than a simple decision between print and online. Yet a lot of advertising in the analog world finds its way into places where there are “questionable” images and conversations we wouldn’t dream of controlling.

Imagine this: two people in a car having a conversation that certainly wouldn’t appear on network TV. They drive past a very compelling billboard with a sexy image advertising toothpaste. The passenger cracks a joke relating the image to their conversation. Both laugh. The ad worked because it cut through the clutter, yet it appeared in a questionable context. Was the brand impaired? I don’t think so.

How different is it if the same ad appears on the margin of a blog featuring the same conversation? This conversation is public (and just a search away for other users). Is the situation really that different? If consumers talk about drugs, sex, or illegal activities in their personal blogs, does that make them less desirable consumers? Is the brand impaired?

What about product placements in films or video games featuring illegal or questionable activities? Think “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Grand Theft Auto.” Placements in these types of vehicles are common, just as print ads appear next to the crime blotter in newspapers. Watching is one thing, chatting about it is another.

But what if consumers are directly engaged in illegal or questionable activities? Where should you draw the line? Is it along legal lines?

What Could Happen?

Traditional media are more heavily regulated. In general, if access is free, content is required to be “decent.” If users opt in (i.e., subscribe), content can take on other qualities. Case in point: Howard Stern’s show isn’t meant for all listeners and isn’t a placement choice for many brands. Yet it’s highly successful. His travails with the FCC contributed to his decision to move his program to Sirius, a closed (subscription based, opt-in) environment.

Given the Web’s distributed nature and the ease with which people can broadcast messages it’s very difficult to police. Workarounds are developed very quickly. Regulation takes time to enact, test, and enforce.

More likely, mass-market sites reliant on ad revenues and the public goodwill will reassure advertisers their brands are placed in a reasonably comfortable context and adult conversations and exchanges take place in private. In the end, we’ll have two Webs, roughly analogous to broadcast TV and cable — one free, the other opt-in. Whether there will be a fee to opt-in, I don’t know.

Is this a tough issue for marketers? Or will it end with more diligence regarding chat rooms that clearly cross a well-defined line? Does the topic have the potential to be contentious? Are ad networks, site operators, search engines, and browser creators addressing the issue quickly enough? Tell me what you think.

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