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The Ad Council brings its roster of causes to the Web.
Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, the Crash Test Dummies. These ubiquitous characters, which have taught generations to put out forest fires, fight crime, and drive safely, have thus far not been nearly as evident on the Internet as they are in traditional media. But the time is coming when public service advertising campaigns produced by the non-profit Advertising Council will become online fixtures, as the organization expands its ability to disseminate banners across the Web.
To increase its campaigns’ online presence, the New York-based Ad Council is combining its usual pleas to the media to run its ads with technology that will ensure rapid-fire distribution of banners about the Council’s panoply of causes. In so doing, it is ensuring that its messages don’t get lost in the fragmented digital age, and that they can be distributed rapidly, economically and with targeting that hasn’t been possible before.
Rich LeFurgy, chairman of the influential industry trade group the Internet Advertising Bureau, which has been helping the Ad Council, recognizes that running such PSAs allows “some valuable unused inventory to be put to good use.”
Of course, the Web hasn’t gone through its life being ignored by cause-related organizations. Non-profit groups and their distinctive .org site addresses have actually been on the Web since its inception, along with links to favorite causes from personal home pages. Nonetheless, until the Ad Council’s current initiative, banner ads on commercial sites haven’t been widespread, and thus, most causes publicized on the Internet have been exercises in preaching to the converted, who were interested enough in going to public service sites without being prompted.
“Unlike traditional advertising media, online never started with a commitment to public service,” notes Donna Feiner, senior vice president of the Ad Council. Indeed, radio and television broadcasters were originally sanctioned in the “public interest” by the federal government, yet the publicly-funded Internet evolved with few medium-wide thoughts about social responsibility.
However, Feiner believes the Internet may be the best medium yet for disseminating its messages. “The Web is such a perfect medium for public service. There’s an activist mentality: People want information and they want it now.”
Therefore, the IAB, representing 200 member companies, and the Ad Council, on behalf of nearly three dozen campaigns, have been working since November on a joint effort to secure
5 percent of commercial sites’ ad inventory on a space-available basis for public service announcements. According to Feiner, donated media support from Internet sites which reported carrying the Council’s banners totaled $5 million in 1997–up 43 percent over the previous year. In 1998, the presence of online PSAs may be on par with the donated inventory totals for consumer magazines or newspapers.
While such pleas to the media have been an Ad Council standby for decades, its current program has all the trappings of sophisticated online ad placement. Patterning distribution of its banners after ad networks such as DoubleClick, the organization has partnered with ad management specialists NetGravity, San Mateo, Calif., to ensure that when spare space pops up on the Internet, an Ad Council banner is ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
“We’ve created the world’s first public service ad network for the Ad Council,” explains Eduardo Samame, NetGravity’s director of business development. Using the firm’s AdServer Network software, the Council is also able to target ads and generate ad performance reports. In addition, electronic delivery of public service ads provides savings in comparison to traditional media, where a significant portion of the Council’s operating budget is consumed by physical duplication and delivery of ads.
As another way of using the Web more effectively, the Council unveiled a major makeover of its Web site by US Interactive, last week. Its focus is to serve as a distribution point for material from off- and online Ad Council campaigns. “It’s been redesigned as a business-to-business site, to make it easy for for all media to use,” says Feiner. Now radio and TV spots can be accessed as streaming feeds with RealAudio and RealVideo software. However, the biggest draw will be to online afficionados, who can download ad banners, apply for affiliation, and even make monetary donations to the site.
Still, it’s the performance reports that may give the Ad Council’s online efforts the greatest advantage over its offline campaigns. With much of its traditional media efforts relegated to untargeted late-night TV, and the rotation decisions of station managers, the accountability of the Web has proven revelatory. Recalls Lee Nadler, director of global marketing for DoubleClick, New York, a recent competition among five agencies to submit a banner for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America demonstrated just how illuminating online performance reporting can be. “The ad that got the most incredible click rate had the sneakiest message. It was a flashing banner with the words, ‘Warning: possible memory loss,'” he says. DoubleClick has also assisted the Council in setting up its network.
Another online Ad Council hit? A recent banner featuring a drawing of a sperm under a microscope and the words, “What it Takes To Be A Father. Click here to find out what it takes to be a dad.” It has drawn exponential growth in traffic to the National Fatherhood Initiative’s site.
With the ad delivery system having proven itself on such high-traffic sites as usatoday.com and CNET.com, it is being expanded to full capacity with automated links to as many sites as possible. NetGravity’s Samame expects that at capacity, which he hopes to achieve within the next month, online users will begin to definitively notice the Council’s banners. At that point, the network will be delivering 50-75 million ad impressions a month–on par with a site such as Pathfinder.com, which generates about 60 million impressions per month.
Says Feiner, echoing the Ad Council’s famous campaign for the United Negro College Fund: “A Web page is a terrible thing to waste.