Publishers, Advertisers Face Iraqi Photo Dilemma

Soldiers smile and pose for pictures, while naked Iraqi prisoners lay piled before them, bound and hooded. Another soldier points at a naked Iraqi prisoner’s genitals, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Shocking images like these and descriptions of prisoner abuse in Iraq have become common sights in online news publications. Whether these highly trafficked features are accompanied by advertising, however, varies from site to site.

“This stuff is inflammatory, it’s incendiary and you don’t necessarily seek out that position for a brand,” said Joe Germscheid, associate media director with Zentropy Partners.

Such unfortunate juxtapositions are occurring, however. In one case, in a photo gallery on Washingtonpost.com, a photo of a solider holding a naked prisoner on a leash appeared above an ad for online travel site Travelzoo. Microsoft ads for one of its Office products appeared below the same photo upon another visit to the same gallery.

Don Marshall, a spokesperson for Washingtonpost.com, said the site had not received any calls from advertisers or media buyers asking that their ads be removed from proximity to the prisoner photos.

“None that I’m aware of,” Marshall said. “I haven’t heard we have gotten any calls either way.” Washingtonpost.com also received no complaints about the photos themselves from users, he said. The Travelzoo ad is no longer running, but Marshall said to the best of his knowledge this was simply because it had reached the end of its run. Travelzoo did not return calls for comment by press time, and Microsoft declined to comment for this story.

While New York Times Digital didn’t respond to requests for comment, it appears to be taking a different tack. “Iraq Prison Abuse,” a photo gallery on NYTimes.com, does not feature ads with the photos. Yet other photo content — a photo slide show on Massachusetts’s same-sex marriage licenses — features an interstitial ad.

Meanwhile at USAToday.com, a photo gallery titled “Abuse At Abu Ghraib,” a photo gallery has no ads. Other USAToday photo-related content, such as a photo series of actor Tony Randall, who died this week, features ads at the bottom.

While proximity to images like those in photo galleries might be touchy, it certainly would expose advertisers to plenty of traffic.

Marshall said the Iraqi prisoner photos have drawn an unusually high amount of traffic. “On a normal day, normal photo galleries draw less than 10 percent of our overall traffic. For the first couple of days in which we had the prison photos up, the photo galleries came close to 50 percent of our overall traffic,” he said. The photos first went up May 6.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, during the seven-day period beginning May 3 and ending May 9, the URL for the Washingtonpost.com abuse photo gallery garnered 193,000 unique visits from users logged on from home. It also drew 230,000 unique visits from those logged on at work.

“If you choose to run ads on the news section of a Web site, you can say what part of a page you want to be on, but not what news will be next to it. That’s why some clients avoid hard news entirely,” said David Cohen, SVP and interactive media director of Universal McCann Interactive. Cohen mentioned consumer packaged goods, entertainment and pharmaceutical players as being especially sensitive to such issues.

If an advertiser makes a run of site buy, the company similarly cannot control what content the ads will appear with. Other than avoiding these buys, the only other approach is “vigilance,” Cohen said.

“You can be very vigilant in the monitoring of your advertising and catch it quickly if it’s next to something offensive,” Cohen said.

Zentropy’s Germscheid reinforced the theme of vigilance.

“When we [media buyers] purchase a run of section or site it should be our responsibility to make sure something isn’t offensive or against your brand or image,” said Germscheid. “You go to the site and check where the ads are running. You check with your site representatives. The best thing is to have a policy regarding this type of content.”

The negative consequences of an unfortunate placement could range from as extreme as a consumer complaint to as small as having a brand that is about fun or lightheartedness “just not fit there,” Germscheid said.

Washingtonpost.com’s Marshall said the staff did not have any special meetings or discussions on what kinds of ads to run with the abuse photos.

“We have a pretty general way that we approach these things. We say, ‘Is there anything that would make anyone uncomfortable, or that is inappropriate?’ Most of the time it seems okay, but sometimes we will move advertising in consultation with the advertiser,” said Marshall.

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