Interactive Ad Ethics: Who Decides?

It may surprise you to learn there’s no legal reason for hard liquor advertisers to (largely) avoid television. For a long time, no formal media company policies forbade it, either. In fact, the decision not to air such ads on TV came from the distillers themselves. Since 1934, they’ve abided by a (regularly updated) voluntary code that lays out guidelines for responsible advertising and marketing.

I started looking into such matters this week after reading eBay’s PayPal unit new use guidelines. The guidelines call for levying fines against users who use the service to buy or sell adult materials (including anything from parent company eBay’s Mature Content section), lottery tickets, and firearms, among other things.

PayPal acknowledges that because of the Internet’s nature and its own service, it could contribute to illegal or immoral (which depends on your definition, of course) activity. It could even face liabilities.

Online advertisers and publishers are in the same position. Of course, this is hardly a new dilemma — witness the distillers’ situation in the ’30s. But the ease of connection and rampant opportunities for abuse make sticky problems even stickier in the Internet age. Recently, I’ve seen signs the Internet biz is growing up and beginning to police itself. Much work remains to be done.

“The Internet is still the wild, wild West,” Jef Richards, a professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “It’s something that we are still trying to cope with. Anytime you have a new technology, you have to feel your way around.” Richards teaches advertising ethics and self-regulation and, in recent years, has focused his attention on the Internet.

A few situations to ponder.

The Distillers

The aforementioned distilled spirits makers, represented by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), have adopted some policies related to online marketing: Web sites must age-qualify visitors; share their URLs with Net Nanny-like software makers to facilitate blocking; and link to “a responsible decision-making site.”

There are no guidelines for email marketing or Web advertising. Are these discouraged completely? I know I’ve gotten email from Johnnie Walker, and I’ve seen Web ads from Absolut.

Meanwhile, Google has publicly said it won’t accept liquor ads, but Yahoo’s Overture apparently has no problem with them. It’s not easy to cover all the bases online. There are just too many of them. Are search ads OK? What about contextual ads? Images? Rich media? Should they be targeted only to folks whose ages you know? How do you ensure that happens?

Questionable Methods

The Internet has also created haziness around acceptable methods of advertising. I’ve called on advertisers to keep away from questionable practices such as drive-by downloads and messenger service ads. This week, a member of a prominent advertising-related email discussion list called for a “boycott” of an ad/spyware organization, contending the only way to halt such practices online is to cut off its funding source — advertising.

I know some affiliate program managers do plenty of policing, yet crafty software makers still occasionally triumph by hijacking affiliate links. Others simply place affiliate links where they were never intended to be. You may recall passage of the CAN-SPAM Act raised a lot of questions about affiliates potentially landing brands in trouble with their email practices. In all these cases, the dirty tricksters get money from (perhaps unwitting) advertisers.

What’s right? What’s legal? The jury’s still out.

Google’s Ad Policies

When it comes to trademark, no one has really figured out what’s legal online. Google decided, given the situation, to step out of the way completely to let advertisers and trademark holders duke it out themselves.

In other matters, the company is decidedly more judgmental. I talked in April to California T-shirt purveyor Bill Wyatt. His ads were rejected because they linked to his site, which sells products Google found objectionable. The Oceana folks had the same experience with their ads.

Turns out Google’s got a “do no evil” ad policy — though the definition of “evil” is up to them. Makes sense. It’s a company, after all, not a government organization, as ad professor Richards reminds us.

“The first amendment doesn’t apply,” he said. “They can put whatever standards they want on it. We saw the same things recently with CBS rejecting some of the political ads, and it’s the same thing, really. CBS has its own standards. It’s the same as Google’s standards. Even if the details of those standards are different, their approach is basically the same.”

Perhaps Google could be a little less mysterious about what it accepts and what it doesn’t, to serve as an example as the industry tries to sort things out.

There’s plenty of sorting out to do, and plenty of decision-making left. It’s hard work, and I don’t envy the advertisers and publishers faced with the difficult decisions. I just hope some of you out there, dear readers, show some leadership, transparency, and cooperation for the common good. If the distillers can do it (though they came together, no doubt, over a single malt scotch), surely we can, too.

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