February 10, 2012
Google, Facebook and all the Internet advertising companies generally do a great job of delivering relevant ads. Relevance, of course, being one half of the dynamic advertising duo, relevance and salience. However, sometimes their efforts lose the plot when keyword connections fail to pick-up on the importance of context. How does this affect someone's perception of the ad and the company?
In most instances, the placement is probably more humorous than anything. If you use Gmail, you have probably seen some curious ads delivered by a keyword out of context. In fact, Microsoft has fun at Google's expense in its "G-mailman" viral video. However, these ads are mostly ignored and kind of funny. More noticeable, and somewhat creepy, are the ads that are delivered based on sites we visit.
Again, anyone who has spent any time on the Internet has probably noticed that after visiting a particular company's website, the company's ads seem to follow you all over the Internet for the next few weeks. Again, this might creep you out, but in the end it is delivering you ads that are more relevant. Although, it can run afoul for people who share a computer with someone and surprise gifts are accidentally revealed--or secret lives. At any rate, I still prefer to be blasted with relevant ads than ads that are useless to me--assuming I have to get ads.
Now, 90 percent of the time, these ad placements are just comically out of place and people either ignore them or have a good chuckle. Google itself provides a nod to this with its Gmail Easter egg that suggests recipes for Spam, the ham-like "meat" product, whenever you go into your spam mail folder. You could argue that this makes the ad stick out. Although, if someone who is not interested in your product sees your ad, is that really a worthwhile impression or the tree falling in the woods? But, it is still no harm no foul. What really concerns me are the bad placements that are not just comically out of place, but also wholly inappropriate.
Example one is an ad I saw before watching an online video. The video, posted on the Huffington Post, was about the Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy. So, let's guess what keyword the old relevant-advertisement-machine keyed in on? That's right, "cruise." So, before seeing the stunning pictures of a sinking ship, I watched a commercial for Disney Cruiselines. Now, I don't believe for a second that Disney would be so callous or ruthlessly opportunistic enough to intentionally do this. But at the same time, if I work for Disney, I am calling my ad people and telling them to pull any ads associated with that content. I don't want any to think for a second that I want to capitalize on a disaster.
On the other end, don't the distributors of these ads owe some responsibility to their customers? I know they paid for the keyword, but someone has to understand that maybe not all instances where the word "cruise" appears are appropriate advertising opportunities. This would be like a Budweiser ad appearing next to a story about a road fatality involving a drunk driver. Here, we have some intelligence, but not enough. Using the words in the article, the algorithm can figure out how the word "cruise" is being used in this story--i.e., the noun referring to a vacation and not the verb referring to type of movement. Unfortunately, it can't understand positive or negative. And it doesn't understand human conventions that say, "We don't try to sell during a disaster."
The next example also suffers of lack of context. Here we have two things at work, the keyword "bicycling" and the fact that I had recently visited the Real Cyclist website. I would imagine the perfect-match alarm was deafening with this combination. Unfortunately, the word bicycling is included as part of an obituary and refers to the vehicle that someone was riding when they died of a heart attack. Clearly, this is not the time to sell me a new bike. To be honest, it isn't really the time to try to sell me a new phone either. In fact, can we agree that ads don't belong on obituary pages?
Of course, just because the decision is made by a person and not a computer, it doesn't mean ad placement can't bite you either.
The point of all this is people already find advertising obtrusive and, at times, tacky. As practitioners, we owe it to our clients to make sure they are never put in a compromising situation by our actions. If I were working at a PR agency, I would never put out a press release about my new cruise offerings days after a cruise liner crash. If I were writing an ad, I wouldn't include copy capitalizing on or making light of a competitors accident. By the same token, we need to make sure our ads are not put in an awkward position.
What are your thoughts? As an industry, how can we improve ad placements online? Are accidental placements just an unfortunate side effect that occasionally we have to live with?
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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.