Last month, Verizon Communications Inc. was surprised to find one of its Internet ads on a MySpace.com page with photos of scantily clad women. Walt Disney Co. was unaware that its ad was next to an article about male sexual performance on About.com. Jobs Web site Monster.com didn't realize its spot was on a site that appeared to be offering unauthorized downloads of copyrighted music and videos. Once they found out, all three yanked their ads.
Most big companies have strict rules to prevent their ads from appearing alongside sexual, political, illegal or hateful material on television and in newspapers and magazines. But these days, the free-wheeling content on the Internet is sorely testing those restrictions because of the way many ads for small sites are sold through middlemen that don't always carefully monitor where the ads are posted.
"There needs to be better accountability and more oversight of this," says Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe. Disney wouldn't comment beyond stating that the ads were misplaced. Monster.com says it regularly reviews placement of its online ads, but "the challenge of ensuring the integrity of each and every placement continues to grow," said spokeswoman Danielle Perry, whose company, like the others, was alerted to these particular incidents by a Wall Street Journal reporter.
Companies and their ad agencies over the years have developed ways to monitor their print and TV ads. For TV, advertisers have lists of shows they won't buy into -- often those with controversial content. In both print and TV, marketers buy ads on condition their spots don't run adjacent to certain content -- such as news of a tragedy.
Advertising on the Internet isn't as clear-cut. Marketers typically place ads directly with Google Inc., Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, Microsoft Inc.'s MSN and Yahoo Inc. But for tens of thousands of smaller Web sites that accept ads, companies or their ad agencies turn to online advertising networks.
Advertisers like these networks because it allows them to buy cheap spots across a wide array of sites. The networks also let advertisers target Web sites that draw a certain demographic, such as young men. Top networks can represent upward of 10,000 Web sites.
But that makes it difficult for companies and even ad networks to be certain where ads are placed. Industry experts say that some Web sites sign up to carry ads using an innocuous name for their site but then place the ads on another more risqué Web site that draws more traffic. Because Web sites earn money based on the number of people who view the ad, a racy Web site with more viewers can mean higher revenue.
"In online advertising it is not 100% possible to make sure that an ad is not being displayed on a wrong Web site," says Michiel Beenen, chief executive of BannerConnect.net, a Dutch online advertising network.
Most ad networks say they review the sites in their network regularly to check for inappropriate content. But David Herpers, chief marketing officer for Amerisave Mortgage Corp. says he bought an ad that appeared on MySpace from a network that promised to run them on "loans and money and finance" sites. Yet in the past month, Amerisave learned that its ad was adjacent to a photo of the male anatomy on a page on MySpace. "It's really alarming....I had no idea that this could conceivably happen," Mr. Herpers says.
After The Wall Street Journal found one of its ads inappropriately placed on MySpace, Dow Jones & Co., which owns the Journal, said it plans in keeping with its policy to ask for the ad's removal, a spokesman said.
MySpace, which is owned by News Corp., says that the personal Web profiles by its more than 50 million members can be racy. But it's building new sections of the site for movies and music. "You'll see us roll out more and more traditional controlled content of the kind that advertisers expect," says Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media, which oversees MySpace.
Glitches have occurred for mundane reasons. The Christian Children's Fund bought ads on the largest online ad network, Advertising.com, which is owned by AOL, and specified that the ads not appear near any provocative content. But Advertising.com says it mistakenly turned off its content filters for an unspecified period of time last month, and the Christian Children's Fund ad ended up next to an article about a sexual position in the sex section of About.com, which is owned by New York Times Co. The Disney ads were also placed by Advertising.com on About.com's sex section during that time.
"It slipped through the cracks and should not have happened," says Advertising.com spokeswoman Mollie Spilman. About.com says its sexual content section will be excluded from its across-the-site ad purchases.
Complicating matters, ad networks often buy groups of ads from other networks. Monster.com, for instance, bought ad space from ValueClick Inc., the second-largest ad network in terms of reach. But ValueClick ended up placing some of Monster.com's order through a smaller network called ASN, owned by privately-held Broadspring Inc. ASN then ran the ads on Web site emp3s.com, which appears to be offering free downloads of copyrighted music and movie clips. Emp3s.com, which is registered to a Korean address, didn't respond to an email request for comment.
ASN says that it isn't sure how emp3s.com got into its network but that it took the site out as soon as its "questionable nature" was brought to its attention. ValueClick says it has terminated its relationship with ASN. Monster.com's Ms. Perry declined to comment on the future of her company's relationship with ValueClick.
ValueClick says it is coming out with new technology that prevents Web sites from signing up with an innocuous domain and then moving the ads to a more risqué site.
The problem is unlikely to be solved soon. Dozens of ad networks last year sold more than $700 million of online ads, industry experts estimate. The Internet is the fastest-growing segment of the ad industry, up 30% in 2005 to $12.5 billion, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a group that represents Web publishers and online ad networks.
"Two years ago I was buying ads for 10 cents per thousand viewers," says Pesach Lattin, chief executive of the small ad network Icon Advertising Solutions. "There's no way I can get that now. It's 75 cents to $1 on the major networks. So if you open a network you are going to make money."
Some ad buyers say errors are par for the course. Gordy Abel, vice president of marketing for media buying giant Aegis Group's Carat Fusion, says he once mistakenly bought ads for a banking client that appeared on a terrorist Web site because he used an ad network.
"I wish...there was a fail-safe program to make sure it wouldn't happen, but it's not there yet," Mr. Abel says. "This happens. It's like losing luggage."
Julia Angwin, The Wall Street Journal. April 4, 2006
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