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Ethical Issues in Online Advertising

Rules for Online Ads

By Martha Spizziri

The web faces the same ethical issues as other media, plus a few of its own. Here are some rules for online ads.

When it comes to advertising, it's a given that making untrue claims, bait-and-switch offers, and the like are unethical. But those aren't the only ethical issues to consider. Advertorials, interstitial ads, pop-ups and pop-unders, contextual links, and overlay ads, to name a few, while not all unethical in and of themselves, all come with ethical hazards.

Why should an advertiser care about this? Because ethically questionable ads can have a negative impact on their brands. When users dislike an ad, they tend to extend that dislike to the advertiser. As web usability expert Jakob Nielsen puts it in an article on his web site: “Unethical ads will get you more fixations, but ethical business practices will attract more loyal customers in the long run.”

Negative reactions can come from media companies too. They may be unwilling to accept certain ads because they will drive traffic away. The journalists' organization The Poynter Institute, for instance, says in its online ethics guidelines: "The consumer's experience is paramount. Advertising models and sponsorships should be evaluated closely to determine their impact on consumer experience."

Advertorials, Kick Through Ads, and In-Text Advertising
One type of advertising that can be problematic is the advertorial – an ad that's intentionally made to look like an article. There's a longstanding rule in the publishing industry that any ad that could be confused with editorial content must be clearly labeled as an advertisement. This is true on the web just as it's always been true in print.

A good example of advertorial is the Feature by Sony campaign launched a few years ago. It consisted of articles written by freelancers who presented themselves as average citizens writing about how they used technology. The articles were commissioned and paid for by Sony. They often didn't even mention Sony except in sidebars, which made them especially hard to distinguish from normal site content. But what really drew criticism was that the labeling to distinguish the articles as advertising was often in very small type, and sometimes the word "advertising" was not even used.

Some types of ads are ethically problematic even if it's obvious that they're ads. For instance, in 2002, travel retailer Orbitz stirred up controversy in more than one media outlet by running kick-through ads – display ads that take the user to a site when they merely mouse over an ad. The fact that kick through ads seem to have disappeared from the web likely is due to the outcry against them.

More recently, the company Vibrant Media created a furor with its IntelliTXT contextual link ads. With IntelliTXT, words or phrases within editorial copy are linked to ads that pop up when the user mouses over the link. Because the user doesn't even have to click on the word for the ad to appear, some have gone so far as to class this technology with spyware.

Forbes.com and eWeek used IntelliTXT ads, then dropped them due to protests from staff, industry watchdogs, and others. The obtrusive nature of the ads wasn't the only issue; there was concern about who should make decisions about editorial content and contextual links within that content. Publishers and editors generally want to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Still, reputable companies have embraced the technology – notably computer-book publisher O'Reilly. Even O'Reilly, which still uses the ads on its site, provides an FAQ explaining why they chose to use this technology and explaining how users can turn off the IntelliTxt ads, which would seem to indicate that the ads are unpopular with users.

Vibrant Media argues that because the paid links feature a distinctive double green underline and the pop-ups are labeled as advertising, the technique doesn't violate ethical rules. The company also says that since the links are inserted using an automated process, after the article is posted online, writers can't be influenced to include particular keywords.

Several media industry associations disagree, notably the business-to-business (B2B) publishing associations American Business Media and American Society of Business Publication Editors. Both have guidelines specifically forbidding the sale of contextual links within editorial copy – see the sidebar. (Disclosure: this story's author works for ASBPE.)

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