Advertising Weaves Tangled Web

August 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Do you know where your online advertising is showing up?

If not, some troubling — or at least embarrassing — situations could arise, according to marketing professionals in West Michigan.

And even strict diligence doesn’t always work.

Take, for instance, the online campaign of Cornerstone University, one of West Michigan’s premier Christian colleges.

This month, its ads appeared on bullzeye.com, a Web site catering to the young male demographic and featuring pictures of scantily clad young women.

The Bullzeye ad featured a graphic of a calendar flipping pages away, and then the Cornerstone logo and the statement, “Get the degree you want with the time you have,” and that the “campus is conveniently located in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.” The link does not take the user to the Cornerstone.edu Web site, but to a stand-alone site, cornerstoneuniv-grandrapids.com, which is a lead generating site for Cornerstone’s Adult and Continuing Education (ACE) program and has no link to its official Web site.

Deeper into the Bullzeye site, the thumbnail pages include not just a Cornerstone banner ad, but a large center ad as well. Other advertisers on the site include reputable entities like the U.S. Navy, Ask Jeeves, University of Phoenix and Angel Soft, but risqué ones as well, like swinger search engine AdultFriendfinder.com and Rodney’s Guide to Erotica — both with small ads below the Cornerstone banner.

Is this the image Cornerstone was hoping to project with its online campaign? Obviously not, said Danielle Kessler, the school’s marketing coordinator.

Is Cornerstone at fault in this advertising situation? Probably not, say West Michigan advertising brand professionals.

“Our ACE program bought an e-marketing package and it is quite possible that there are some ads that were placed in funky places,” said Kessler, who, ironically, couldn’t even view the site in question because Cornerstone’s content filters blocked its access. “We’ve been very hesitant to purchase them for our undergraduate program because of things like this. We’ve been nervous about it. But it’s just one of those things that happen and they are going to happen.”

For an entity like Cornerstone, which diligently monitors its advertising messages, this is not a new situation, but it’s the first time it has happened with relation to the Internet. Previously, radio ads have erroneously run on shows like Howard Stern and WFOX’s Bob and Tom, both sometimes objectionable to the audience that Cornerstone traditionally aims for.

In radio, stations sometimes plug extra ads in to unsold airtime, and there are packages available directly for that purpose, but generally the advertiser is able to stipulate where the ads shouldn’t be played, and the salespeople educate the client on where those ads could be placed. But, as representatives from both Clear Channel and Regent Broadcasting agreed, mistakes do happen.

“It can even go beyond that,” said Cynthia Kay of Cynthia Kay and Co., who is president of American Marketing Association West Michigan. “You can put your ad in the yellow pages and who knows what you might end up next to. I don’t think it’s limited to any particular medium; the issue becomes an issue no matter where you advertise.”

Kay said advertisers often don’t think of asking about placement when they advertise. There is a certain amount of trust that advertisers are required to place in the salespeople of advertising venues, from print to billboards, but she said advertisers must work more closely with salespeople to determine what the placement will be.

“Most people don’t even know how to ask the questions and what questions to ask,” Kay explained. “The tough questions like: Have they visited the site and have they looked at the ads there? Do they understand who it is you are trying to reach? And how does this fit into my overall marketing plan?”

Large companies will find this easier as they will have the ability to better leverage placement. Small companies, on the other hand, don’t generally have the buying power or the understanding to ensure protection against unintended associations. Kay mentioned another concern advertisers should have: placement protection against other brands. Imagine an ad side by side with that of a competitor, and their ad looks nicer or offers a better deal.

Robert Milroy, of Alexander Marketing, explained that his firm has yet to run into a situation like Cornerstone’s in its expansive work in the online arena, but it has seen plenty of other situations: private sites set up to bash companies (like Wal-Mart or Amway); blogs that spread misinformation that is both costly and dangerous; trademark infringement; unintended links; and a long list of other problems.

“Luckily, if you’re a candidate for these kind of attacks,” Milroy said, “the people who will see them aren’t the market you are aiming for. You have to look at how dangerous what they are doing is, and then go after them one at a time.”

Alexander monitors the Internet for many of its clients, searching out these types of situations. Milroy offers this advice: Type your company and key employees’ names into Google every so often and see what comes up.

As for the Cornerstone/Bullzeye situation, Laura Bergells, a senior project manager at Highland Group, explained how such an incident could occur.

“First of all, this is very bad ad placement, obviously,” she said. “Angel Soft? I don’t think too many guys make that association when they’re looking at pictures like this. This is probably a bad syndication deal. A lot of the less reputable companies won’t even tell you where they are going to place your ad.”

Online ad syndication is a practice similar to newspaper syndication. The advertiser produces an ad, and then places the ad within syndication. That ad may appear at any time on any site within that syndication company’s reach. With 28 million views in the month of June, Bullzeye would qualify as a mid-range candidate for syndication. A Bullzeye representative confirmed that they did use several syndication companies.

This is actually a “double-blind” system in which the advertiser doesn’t know where the ad will end up, and the Web site doesn’t know what ad it will get. Most sites also offer advertising separate from syndication. These sites can even target the viewer by region from the location of the viewer’s URL. That way, for example, a Cornerstone ad looking for West Michigan leads will be seen only in West Michigan.

According to Bergells, in the case of the banner ad, this is especially problematic. The click-through rate for a banner ad is less than 1 percent and dropping, she said, so there is little possibility of lead generation. The only sensible use of banner ads is to make an impression and build up that impression with each view. That is why it makes sense to get it on as many sites as possible.

“But you want to make sure that that impression bolsters your image,” she said. “You want to be making a quality impression. This Cornerstone ad is well designed, it looks nice; you don’t want to waste it on a bad impression.”

For proper placement within syndication, Bergells advises using a reputable company and stipulating sites in the contract that the advertiser doesn’t want to be associated with.

The problem is, Cornerstone did just that.

Arizona-based IPD, a division of the Apollo Group, has long provided not only Cornerstone, but also dozens of other Christian colleges nationwide and the University of Phoenix, with marketing and recruiting services, responsible for print and other media advertising.

“We put a bunch of criteria in place; filters were built in,” Cornerstone’s Kessler said. “We had asked the company to track where we are and what type of site it is. They’re trying to figure out how this could happen.”

Dan Calabrese, president of Northstar Public Relations, believes that protecting a brand is becoming increasingly difficult.

“I think that organizations that are concerned with not being associated with certain things when deciding where to put their marketing dollars are going to have to invest a lot more time and resources into making sure that they are protected against ending up in the wrong place,” he said.

Some day, technology might provide a solution, but that isn’t any time soon. For now, he said, people are going to have to make a choice between uncertainty and advertising in certain venues. Even with a contract and fail-safe procedures, mistakes do happen, and there is just too much Internet to track them all down. And a site’s content could even change for the worse on any given day.

“The biggest problem is that it can rob a lot from the consistency of the overall message,” Calabrese added.    

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