Out of Context
Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, April’s Chief Juxtaposition Officer:
Believe me when I say that I'm not trying to be any more depraved than usual. But I just saw something that speaks to a basic problem with contextual advertising, and why I can't come down too hard on a company that's paranoid about its brand identity.
It was one of those golden moments in Internettery, when all the stars and planets were in alignment: I received my daily email newsletter from Adrants (www.adrants.com) -- a site that catalogues bad, funny, and otherwise outre marketing -- and there was an item about an ad for Iomega rewritable drives. Lovely ad, very pretty, and I'm sure Iomega makes splendid storage products for burning data to media. That's not the funny part.
As Adrants noted, Iomega's banner was designed to appear alongside related content by way of keywords. Thing is, this particular ad had a slogan -- "Burn baby. Burn!" -- and it ran next to a news item with the following headline: "One toddler dead, another critical after house fire."
What can I say? Babies dying or being horribly injured isn't funny -- unless you count all those dead-baby jokes we used to tell when we were kids -- but the juxtaposition of the article and the ad has to make you laugh unless the proverbial stick crammed up your @$$ is wedged so deep that you think it's a toothpick. As Steve Hall, the publisher of Adrants, commented in the newsletter, "It's like the last vestige of sick humor as yet untarnished by a politically correct society on steroids that's pretty much put comedians out of business."
I'm no fan of Steve's run-on sentence, but I agree with the sentiment -- an inability to laugh usually indicates a lack of perspective. Consider another example of bad positioning that made the news: The Associated Press reported that senior citizens in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, were suing to prevent a funeral home from opening across the street from a center for the elderly, calling the location "too close for comfort." Luckily, at least one of the locals was able to see the humor and wisdom of it: "We're old here; we're all ready to go," she said. "I think it will be handy." Good for her!
I doubt it's possible to design an advertising engine smart enough to screen out placements that are inappropriate despite a solid keyword fit. Text mining just isn't there yet. The only recourse is to hire people to preapprove potential pairings, sort of like a digital matchmaker. But (a) that sounds like a rotten job; (b) I know people aren't smart enough to do it right; and (c) whatever they miss due to stupidity may be left in due to capriciousness. It's what I'd do.
On LinkedIn -- one of my favorite resources for stealing ideas -- somebody asked if bloggers and other online types would consider allocating banner space to a purely nonprofit- or charity-focused ad network. One respondent -- attorney William Lim -- said a key factor would be the ability to filter the types of organizations whose ads popped up. He wrote, "If I run a Palestinian solidarity site, I most likely would not care to advertise for Israel birthright trips." Ya think?
All that aside, there's something deeper going on with keyword- and search-based ads that needs attention. No matter how carefully you manage your own identity and message, there's no good fix for getting blindsided by automated software, however accurate it purports to be. I can imagine a news release about a Go-Kart race to raise money for abstinence-based education -- "The Rubber Hits the Road for Celibacy.org," the headline might read -- only to be trumped by a condom ad keyed to the word "rubber." That may give new meaning to the notion of customer intimacy, but, really, nobody would be happy with that outcome.
Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com. Please. It gets really lonely here sometimes.