Views Expressed in This Column Don’t Necessarily Reflect Those of Our Sponsors

Interactivity changed a lot about advertising, but not the fundamentals. Advertising remains… advertising, which means an advertisement is still a paid announcement. An ad is entirely designed and executed by the advertiser. An ad is, in form and content, separate and distinct from its host medium.

Likewise, journalistic ethics are pretty much the same online as off-. ClickZ maintains a healthy “church and state” division between publishing and editorial, as any respectable publication should. Our content is easily distinguishable from ads on our site and in newsletters.

The big difference between on- and offline seems to be people’s reactions to the advertising. Perhaps because the Internet began as a noncommercial medium, advertising often isn’t accepted online — although it has the same relationship to content as before.

Think people ignore banner ads? Think again. You might expect readers email us with passionate reactions to our writers’ columns. They also frequently share reactions to the ads.

We get opinions about their format and placement — and we get opinions about our advertisers. Here’s a message we received this week:

How can one of the most trusted sources for online marketing justify selling ads to [company]? … [Company] represents a lot of what’s wrong with online advertising … and by letting them sponsor pages, you’re only helping their cause.

Food for thought, not only concerning ClickZ’s advertising, but advertising in general. Do readers, viewers, and users in this media-saturated society actually believe any medium, in accepting an ad, condones the product? I thought that assumption was limited to the Good Housekeeping Institute. Accepting advertisements has never meant publishers or broadcasters endorse the product or service in question any more than it implies they condemn it. Ads are… ads. Isn’t that the contract? It surprises me many ClickZ readers, themselves marketers and advertisers, overlook this fundamental aspect of their own businesses.

ClickZ is a forum in which our columnists write about what they think is right and wrong with online advertising. Not infrequently, they’ll excoriate (or laud) the practices of advertisers past, present, and future. Readers have strong opinions of their own. There are the antispam absolutists who won’t rest until email marketing — all email marketing — is eradicated. We publish their opinions, too, in our feedback section.

Does this mean that I agree with them — either our readers or my fellow columnists? Not necessarily. The reality is the publication of all this opinion and debate occurs only because we have advertising. It stands to reason some of the ads you see surrounding columns on email marketing, for example, happen to be from vendors in the email marketing space. In the editorial part of our pages, people express their opinions, but in the advertising spots you’ll find advertising. Whether these companies should be abolished (or not) isn’t a call our ad sales reps are supposed to make.

Spam is only one area where ethics, standards, and legislation haven’t caught up with the reality of interactive marketing. This summer, paid search engine marketing spurred the FTC to make a recommendation. A year ago, we got all kinds of angry mail about the ethics of paid listings and rankings in search results. Now, there’s nary a murmur from readers on the subject.

Lawsuits are flying left and right in this industry. Some defendants have advertised here, others not: Gator, DoubleClick, VeriSign, ValueClick, 24/7, Avenue A (not to mention that Redmond-based software company’s long waltz with the Justice Department).

Do we embrace and endorse all the practices of all our advertisers? Not for a second. Think this is unique to ClickZ? It is as old as journalism, and encompasses every medium where ad-sponsored content appears.

Online, cookies raise privacy issues. The other kind of cookies — such as those baked by RJR Nabisco — have been boycotted by trade unions, educators, communities, and individuals since the biscuit giant became part of Altria (the company formerly known as Phillip Morris). This hardly put an end to Ritz Crackers, Oreo Cookies, or Snackwell’s media buys, on- or offline. The combined marketing might of Nabisco and other Altria brands (including Kraft Foods and Miller Beer) doubtless keeps more than a few of our agency-employed readers solvent. How many irate letters does “Woman’s Day” receive each time it sells space to Jell-O?

These products aren’t illegal. They don’t violate “community standards” (in the sense many media won’t accept ads for X-rated products).

Tobacco companies aren’t the only ones under fire from the public. “Big Food is the next Big Tobacco,” proclaims Adbusters. John Banzhaf, the attorney who took down Big Tobacco, says Big Fat is next.

Coincidentally, the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB’s) latest study advocating online in the marketing mix showcases a McDonald’s campaign. If the IAB received complaints about the subject of this study, it didn’t tell me.

Consider Google’s list of Allegedly Unethical Firms. Included are Procter & Gamble; Nike; Nestlé; Coca-Cola, and some 40 others. Imagine the media and marketing landscape if publishers and broadcasters refused to accept advertising from these (or other) companies with practices they (or consumers) differed with. It paints an awfully dystopian view of the industry, online or off-. If these brands collectively weren’t permitted to buy media and agencies collectively refused them as clients, there would be no advertising or marketing industry as we know it. There probably wouldn’t be society as we know it.

Whether that would be a good thing is another subject entirely.

Is it unethical to accept ads from companies with which a media outlet or its users disagree? Does accepting an ad imply a publisher’s endorsement of what’s advertised?

I have a pretty good idea of The New York Times’s editorial position on hot-button topics such as gun control, abortion, and capital punishment. Bet you do, too. Routinely, ads sponsored by special interest groups on both sides of these issues appear in its pages.

I don’t wear Nikes. To me, wearing a logo is almost as abhorrent as the company’s labor practices. Yet, when I see a Nike ad I never think, “By letting them sponsor… you’re only helping their cause” (as our reader wrote). Rather, I think about conspicuous consumption, child labor, obscene fees for celebrity endorsements; the refusal to stitch “sweatshop” on a customer’s personalized shoe; and the Presto viral marketing debacle in Toronto.

I am immune to Nike advertising because I consider myself informed about the company and its practices. Right or wrong, I have a strong opinion about the brand. Readers of this publication are presented with information and opinions about online advertising. It’s intended to help you make decisions about your business and for your clients. Those decisions are ultimately yours to make.

An ad must persuade. If a strong, reputable brand stands behind the persuasion, so much the better. An ad must be seen by the right people, which is why advertisers select specific media. Smart advertisers target appropriate, receptive audiences.

Publishers? The medium, not the message. They may love, hate, or be utterly indifferent to what’s advertised.

Change those rules, and you change the rules of advertising.

You can meet Rebecca at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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