Get Off My Cloud

College students’ foreheads, air-sickness bags, urinals. Everything, it seems, has branding potential if the price is right. In the case of a jockey’s racing silks, that figure would be $30,000.

No matter how outlandish or unique the placement, I usually just shrug it off, maybe laugh, and file it away as yet another attempt to command attention in an ADD society. But a recent example hits uncomfortably close to home. It seems online editorial content is no longer off-limits.

This I learned over a meeting with Vibrant Media CEO Doug Stevenson, who was on a road show to introduce his contextual-ad product. His IntelliTXT technology converts keywords in Web articles into pay-for-placement advertising hyperlinks. When a user rolls his or her mouse over the green, double-underlined word, a small ad pops up that relates somehow to that word.

After a year of doing business mainly with vertical sites such as The Auto Channel and BetaNews.com, Vibrant is pushing the format to mainstream publishers. Projecting revenue of $25 million this year, the San Francisco company undoubtedly wants to take advantage of the contextual-listings market, where spending will rise from $48 million last year to $578 million in 2008, Forrester Research predicts.

Vibrant says the format “enables publishers to monetize the previously untapped content portion of their Web sites.” Just a guess here: Wasn’t it untapped because merging ads and editorial—church and state—is ethically questionable? I’m all for ad-supported content, just not ads in content. Do we want Bush and Kerry duking it out for election and president on WashingtonPost.com’s opinion page? Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Cingular roughing each other up to jump on mobile and cellular in NYTimes.com’s tech section? Dick Roth and Skip Pile scuffling to own review on Adweek.com?

“We want to make sure that the word that we’re laying claim to is linking someone to an ad destination page, which is more than just advertising; it’s more about information,” says FCBi associate media director James Kiernan, who has used IntelliTXT to buy keywords for Hewlett-Packard on IT sites. Trouble is, not everyone will act as responsibly.

Speaking about contextual ads in general, G2 principal analyst Denise Garcia calls them “the Web’s response to product placement.” But there’s a difference between embedding brands in American Idol and doing so in the CBS Evening News. Placing a can of Coke in front of Simon Cowell is different from plunking one on Dan Rather’s desk.

Granted, publishers can control where IntelliTXT is used. It’s better suited to product reviews and feature sections than news stories, admits Stevenson. It’s good to know a Web surfer won’t mouse over the word “luggage” to see a Samsonite ad in a story about, say, body parts found in a suitcase.

“If the consumers are willing to accept it, [IntelliTXT] opens up good quality content to contextual ads,” Jupiter Research analyst Nate Elliott tells me, arguing that contextual ads are often relegated to less-trafficked, lower-quality space. But how long will it be deemed “good quality content” once ads infiltrate it? Editorial will start looking a hell of a lot like advertorial to me.



For the record: Georgia-Pacific’s review of its Vanity Fair and Brawny brands is limited to paper napkins sold under those names [May 3]. The layoffs of 12 people at Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York represented a staff reduction of 19 percent, not 30 percent [April 19].