Can Web ‘cities’ keep ads out of the red-light district?
Late last month Microsoft got an embarrassing look at a FrontPage 98 banner advertisement on Chrissy’s Hideout, an x-rated site that, among other things, exhorted visitors to call an overseas sex hotline while treating them to explicit images of the adventuresome, eponymous 18-year-old. Was this another case of saboteurs intentionally sullying Microsoft’s brand image online?
The Microsoft banner was in a rotation, along with at least 10 other advertisers including Sony, Sprint and Ziff-Davis, on The Globe, a community of more than a million user-generated home pages. It’s unknown how long the banners ran on Chrissy’s Hideout. What is known today is that the hideout is gone, as are Microsoft’s banners from www.theglobe.com.
The Globe explains that both the existence of the porn page and the ad placement were oversights. (The company forbids the display of pornographic content in its community of more than 160,000 user-generated home pages, under penalty of excommunication.) And the price of the Globe’s gaffe? Apparently, the publisher is out $250,000, as Microsoft has pulled its business.
While uncommon, such costly ad misplacements serve as a sobering reminder that for all the niche marketing opportunities the medium affords, the Internet remains a vast, and at times uncontrollable environment, especially for user-generated sites. Advertisers and agencies seeking to make a branding impact with visitors to innocuous enclaves of cyberbia–a Mabel’s Kitchen or Clive’s Gardening Page–may want to ask themselves: Do I know where my banners are?
Ironically, Microsoft’s FrontPage 98 is a software product that enables PC owners to build their own Web pages. And user-generated sites like The Globe are a smart ad buy to promote the product, says Ted Bremer, marketing manager for the desktop applications division of Microsoft. “If you take a look at the trends of community sites, they’re of growing importance,” says Bremer. “We want to be part of that.”
Still, Microsoft pulled all its ads from The Globe “within about 10 minutes of being notified” by its San Francisco-based agency Anderson & Lembke, Bremer says. Microsoft is willing to do business with The Globe again, he adds, but only after it is assured the company is filtering its content. “We just wanted to make sure our content was pulled first. Then the next step is to talk with them about it.”
Humans and machines patrol the entire Globe community for evidence of profane verbiage and imagery. The company has also developed Matador, a profanity filter, to keep its chat regions clean. But Globe representatives are unsure how the advertisements on Chrissy’s Hideout went undetected.
“This was an absolute aberration and an absolute mistake,” asserts Susan Berkowitz, director of sales and marketing at The Globe, New York. “But in [Microsoft’s] estimation this appears to be the way we behave.”
Considered “passive conduits” by the courts, user-generated communities such as The Globe, GeoCities and Tripod are no more liable for what a person says or does on their site than the phone company is when a caller harasses strangers with prank calls. But being reliant on ad revenue to stay in business, these online towns are keen on cleaning up the neighborhood, and they’re learning that online policing is a complex matter.
Indeed, this magazine hasn’t been spared, according to the Globe’s Berkowitz. She claims that in an Adweek-sponsored area of GeoCities’ Madison Avenue section, a porn page appears with an Ad Council banner above explicit adult content. (While searches revealed numerous active and defunct adult content pages on GeoCities, no porn pages with banner ads from mainstream advertisers were located. Berkowitz later supplied this magazine with a photocopied image of the page, minus the URL.)
All of the major free homepage sites take pains to ensure that ads appear only on appropriate user-generated pages. At Tripod, for example, a team of “taxonomists” chooses worthwhile pages from an ocean of homemade Web flotsam. Likewise, only a few hundred of The Globe’s user homepages were approved to receive ads. But “unfortunate circumstances” are bound to occur, concedes GeoCities vice president of marketing Dick Hackenberg. “We are basically a site hosting service. It’s impossible to monitor what will be 1.5 million sites.”
Hackenberg, who in his first nine months at GeoCities hasn’t yet been flagged for inappropriate ad placement, says that most advertisers opt for targeted buys to avoid problems, but for run-of-site buys, the only protection is GeoCities’ general policy against adult material. While true advertising disasters are rare, it’s evident that interactive media planners are facing issues that don’t often arise when buying on other media.
“I would doubt if any advertiser knew where all their banners are,” says Chris Dobbrow, publisher of PC Magazine. Dobbrow was unfazed by the news that his banners landed on Chrissy’s Hideout.
“This is a fluke that doesn’t happen in print,” acknowledges Steven Yee, vice president of marketing for Sony Online Ventures, one of the advertisers who unknowingly hung out on Chrissy’s Hideout. “The worst thing that could happen in print is you could [buy space] adjacent to a competitor.”
But, he adds, the fluid nature of the medium gives the online publisher and advertiser a benefit unavailable in other media: the ability to pull potentially compromising ad placements at a moment’s notice. Sony Online Ventures’ agency, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, also monitors Sony’s buys to ensure the company gets exactly what it pays for, says Steve Klein, a partner and media director at the firm.
Yee adds that Sony’s brush with Chrissy didn’t result in any ostensible hit to the brand’s reputation. Furthermore, the company never heard a peep about it from site loyalists, he says. “If there’s any fallout, there may be a need for us to agree on more rigid requirements [with user-generated sites] as in not allowing it to be purely a run-of-site buy.” Yee said that Sony had no plans to pull its business from The Globe, the only user-generated site it currently advertises on.
But for advertisers, agencies and the sites themselves, it’s clear that dealing with a newly empowered audience has also created a new headache. The exciting melting pot of online communities can bring an unwanted element into town. And like any growing city, more cops may well be needed.
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