Ad and Subtract

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005; 10:24 AM

If you don't read AdAge, you should.

It's a de facto bible for advertising professionals, but even if the jargon handicaps you a bit, you'll find no better source of dispassionate news that explains the motives of the people who spend billions of dollars to "help" us spend our money.

Here's something on the AdAge Web site that caught my attention: On Thursday, one of its articles posed a question that is relevant to anyone who uses the Internet to buy, sell or consume: "Is it safe to advertise in places on the Internet that are essentially run by consumers and cannot be controlled?"

This is an essential question for an industry that every couple of years -- based purely on my anecdotal observation -- works overtime to produce a semblance of spontaneity in its pitches. Many consumers react better to something that doesn't reek of being run before a million test audiences and hashed into oatmeal in a thousand boardrooms -- our frequent patronage of Target notwithstanding.

But runaway Internet success often happens by accident. Some no-name Web site drops a bomb on us and suddenly something is on everyone's lips. The solution, of course, is to try to ape that success. Unfortunately, the potential for embarrassment and failure loom large. AdAge offered two case studies up high in the story:

"Recently, Yahoo was sued by the parents of a boy who charged his picture was posted on a site by a pedophile in a user-run Yahoo chat room, and State Farm, PepsiCo and Georgia-Pacific pulled their ads. The Los Angeles Times had to shut down a reader-generated comment 'wikitorial' feature after child pornography and obscenity were posted. Yahoo closed its user-generated chat rooms (although the Yahoo-sponsored rooms are still open), but the scandals have brought advertisers face-to-face with their fears."

And here is the crux of the advertisers' dilemma: "How can they protect themselves and their good names when blog and chat-room users are liable to say and post anything? It's not just pornography or off-color language that worries them. What if consumers got angry about something involving a marketer's brand, and their remarks got linked to across the Internet? Maybe advertising in such open spaces is not worth the risk."

It ought to be worth it. Online criticism is the best form of customer feedback, and to pull advertising or muzzle the source amounts to ignoring the buyer. It's about accountability -- I see that kind of scenario as a summons to improve something that might not work right.

There are plenty of people out there who are born complainers, but plenty of the criticisms directed at the corporations who depend on our hard-earned dollars are deserved. It should be highlighted and met with a response appropriate to the customer's gripe. Advertisers might find that the Internet leads to better brand and product trust if they could take online complaints and respond to them by improving their product or their customer service instead of pulling their ads and going elsewhere.

"Yes, Robert, and if we all show up at a couple of rock concerts and do as Bono does, we'd end world poverty." My vaguely utopian rambling doesn't exactly mesh with what the experts are saying, according to AdAge:

"It's a really good idea for an advertiser to monitor the tenor and the tone of any site he buys media on, said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer and customer satisfaction officer of customer research firm Intelliseek. 'Companies need to be tuned into the good, the bad and the ugly,' he said. 'It's amazing how many companies have no idea about all the bad things that consumers say about them -- really vicious.' He suggested that public sites could have a registration process for which consumers would need to be approved; anonymous postings would not be allowed. And, if a consumer steps over the line, 'perhaps there could be a system to vote them off the island.'"

Call me crazy, but as more blog sites, chatrooms and public online venues take on advertising to stay live, spontaneity and honest speech will be the first contestants voted off the island.

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