When online advertising goes badly wrong

Maria, the little girl found in Greece You're having a quick nose on Twitter or reading your favourite paper online and your attention is captured by a news report on a missing child. It's a story that has already captured international attention and which you feel very strongly about. There's a link to a video with all the latest info and a request for help so you click the link, bracing yourself for the difficult and upsetting content, ready to do your bit.

But the link doesn't immediately click through to the report and instead leads to a thirty second advert that you're supposed to sit through first. It's for Schwartz and the ad is full of helpful suggestions for what to cook for that night's dinner. Only then do you view the news item, which is as distressing as you expected.

Which one leaves more of the bad taste in your mouth - the news story or the advert?

This is exactly the experience I had last night when following up a story about Maria, the little girl found just this week in Greece.

Being in the PR & marketing business I have a better understanding than many of how media buying and placement works but I was really interested in my own reaction.

Firstly I felt disbelief that there was an advert at all, then sheer anger and revulsion at the brand which thought it appropriate to be there. Not quite sure any advert would have been appropriate in this situation but as I was feeling a bit sick about another little girl having been separated from her parents, in a week during which Madeleine McCann has once again been headline news, I sure as hell wasn't thinking about food.

I wanted to see whether my reaction was an average one so (admittedly not a scientific test) I turned to Facebook to see what my friends thought. Aside from 2 people who weren't that bothered, the majority were firmly in my camp.

So, a fail for the advertiser and reputational damage for Schwartz. Not the kind of return on investment you want from advertising spend.

It's at this point I took a step back. I wanted to unpick how Schwartz might have found itself in this situation and it's not as straight forward as you think (despite that being how it outwardly looks to the consumer). There are processes in place that the advertiser is at the mercy of and the brand may place faith in others to ensure media placement is appropriate. So does the responsibility lie with the company, the media buying agency used (who could blame the random nature of the type of online advert booked) or the network who sets advertising revenue above safeguards around sensitive content.

I turned to media buying expert Clare Lee, who is an account director at Steve Davidson Advertising to find out more.

Clare said: “Digital advertising is an ever shifting and developing medium. Many clients, and even some advertising agencies, struggle to keep up with multiple targeting methods, site types and measurement tools. Gone are the days you simply bought a banner for a month on a website you think your target market are visiting.

“Often big brands will allocate a budget, specify a target market and then allow a specialist digital agency to buy a blind network campaign based on behavioural and contextual targeting. This can be great as you know that no matter where your target market are browsing online your advert will be seen by them. This is also bought at a much lower cost per thousand impressions, often at up to 80% cheaper than buying advertising space on the sites directly. However the brand will not be aware exactly where their adverts will be placed.

“This is worrying. If you use a reputable agency they will guarantee that your advert will appear only on the Comscore top 500 sites and that your advert won't be played on gambling or porn sites, but I guess the question is - does that go far enough?

“The preroll video content played before you can watch a news story you have clicked on are mainly bought in this way, so the brands themselves are unlikely to know their advert has been played before a highly upsetting/contentious news clip. I think this is where the news media owners themselves have to step up and take more responsibility. They are under ever increasing pressure to increase digital revenue as the printed press are haemorrhaging readership and advertisers. Many are in the process of weighing up the option of charging subscriptions to view online content, which is a risky strategy. If you can get your news for free elsewhere why would you pay for it? This means they have to commercialize as much of their site as possible through advertising, sponsorships and paid for content (ie advertorials).

“Advertising is all about timing, reaching the right audience at the right time for them to hear/see your message. This can be executed beautifully, like the Vanish stain removal TV ad in the first break of Channel Four’s Equinox interview in which Jon Snow quizzed Monica Lewinsky about her infamously stained dress. But it can also go very badly wrong.

“My belief is that certain news content should not have any preroll adverts played before it. It's not hard to see which stories should fall into this category, anything to do with murder, assault, missing children etc. The media need to self regulate what they deem to be appropriate, but brands, advertisers and agencies need to demand that their campaigns are not placed in such potentially damaging and upsetting contexts.”

Clare outlines really concisely the issues facing brands today and I have to say I agree with her with regards to certain content not being prefaced by adverts. It will be interesting to see how this plays out but it may take a big brand to be badly burned in reputational terms before either advertisers or news media owners start to treat this with the focus and attention the matter deserves.