USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Proposed ICC guidelines for presenting advertising online (draft)

As we define our new medium, ethical considerations such as clearly distinguishing editorial content from advertising content are of the utmost importance. Newspapers, magazines, television, and radio have had decades to develop an ethical consensus. Since the Web was truly commercialized only in 1994, it's important for editorial-based companies and organizations like the Internet Content Coalition (ICC) to lead the Internet industry in its development of an ethical conscience.   The business model of a number of ICC members is advertising-driven. These companies generate revenue by selling advertising banners, portals (see description below), sponsorships, and special advertising sections. As a new medium that lets readers search, sort, research, and cull information far more easily than they can with a printed magazine or newspaper, the Internet opens new advertising opportunities that should make it easier to connect advertisers to consumers interested in their products.   In print publications, the ad-edit boundaries are clear and have long been agreed upon: ads are clearly set off from editorial matter, either appearing on separate pages (full-page ads), in clearly delineated areas on the same page as editorial copy (fractional ads), or as a group of pages comprising both ads and editorial-like copy that are labeled as advertising (special advertising sections). It's understood that in a reputable publication, ads do not appear embedded within editorial matter, and that ads must appear distinct from the visual style of the publication's editorial (in other words, an ad mustn't use typefaces, typesizes, colors, or design elements that mimic the publication's editorial style).   On the Web, the boundaries are less distinct, and the conventions are not yet universally agreed upon. New issues arise: when advertising is embedded within editorial content, where are the boundaries? In addition, the variety of forms that advertising takes on the Web are still evolving, which makes it impossible at this point to define exactly how all types of advertising should be treated.   But our goal is clear: to uphold the reader's faith in the integrity of an online publication's editorial coverage by ensuring that the editorial content is free from the appearance of, and the fact of, advertiser influence. The best way to do this is to make clear to the reader which elements on the page are advertisements and which are editorial matter-and to make as clear as possible the nature of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the advertising and the editorial content. We define editorial content as being all content on the online publications' site that is not explicitly presented as advertising.   The following guidelines provide a framework for advertising policy on ICC sites. However, as the Web is a new medium, these guidelines shouldn't be taken as rules chiseled in stone. Nevertheless, any exceptions should be carefully considered, to weigh the balance between taking advantage of an advertising opportunity and protecting the reader's faith in editorial credibility.   General guidelines that apply to all types of advertising Advertisements should not be placed adjacent to editorial material in a manner that implies editorial endorsement of the advertised products or services. For example, an ad for a product or service should not appear on any editorial page that evaluates the product or service being advertised (exception: randomly generated ad banners). For example, in a multiproduct review of notebook PCs, an ad for an IBM ThinkPad could not appear on the capsule review of an IBM ThinkPad or any other page that specifically reviews that product (such as an editor's recommendation). However, the ThinkPad banner ad could appear on one of the other capsule reviews in the roundup. Similarly, an ad for an IBM desktop PC could appear on the capsule review of the ThinkPad. When ads of any type are targeted at a section or story that focuses primarily on one vendor, then that vendor's ads must not be served on any of those pages. When ads of any type are targeted at a section or story that focuses primarily on one or two products, then ads for those products must not be served on any of those pages. For example, in a head-to-head review of Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator, ads for those products must be excluded. Ads must appear distinct from the visual style of the site's editorial (in other words, an ad mustn't use typefaces, typesizes, colors, and other design elements that mimic the site's editorial style). It is the responsibility of the ad sales staff to monitor this. Any nonbanner advertisement, including portals, windows, buttons, and special advertising sections containing text or design elements that have an editorial appearance, must be clearly and conspicuously identified with the words advertising, advertisement, advertiser links, or special advertising section at or near the center of the top of the page or element, in clear, legible type. (The ad banner is the one ad format on the Web that is clearly understood by users to be advertising and therefore doesn't need to be labeled as such. All other forms do require explicit labeling.) To help the reader discern the difference between advertisements and editorial content, links to editorial content should not be placed within an advertising element. To monitor compliance with the guidelines, the editor in chief, managing editor, or other ranking editorial employee must receive a nonstandard advertisement package with ample time to review it and to recommend any necessary changes. Banner ads Banner ads usually run across the top and/or bottom of each Web page. Currently, most banners are randomly generated based on frequency contracts. It's possible that an advertiser's banner could end up on a page that reviews or features a product from that advertiser, but because the ad delivery is random there's no way to avoid that situation (aside from removing any banner ads from that page or section). However, once sites acquire the technology that starts targeting banners at particular users and/or sections of a site, we must guard against ad-edit conflicts: If banner ads are targeted at a section or story that is vendor-specific, then that vendor's ads must not be served on any of those pages. For example, if we publish a special report on Windows 98, Microsoft ads must not appear on any pages in the section. Targeted banner ads for a product or service may not appear on an editorial page that specifically evaluates that product or service.   Portals Portals are ads that appear within navigational toolbars. Portals can be either paid advertisements or internal house ads. The following guidelines apply to both types. The portal must include the label advertisement. A portal must not be placed within or above the links to primary editorial content. Ad windows Ad windows look much like portals but appear within the editorial area of the page. The window must include the label advertisement. Ad buttons Ad buttons are small icons that send the user either to the advertiser's site or to a special advertising section on the host site. The button, or group of buttons, must be labeled as advertising. If an ad button appears within a story that also uses buttons for an editorial purpose, the ad buttons must be visually distinct from the editorial ones. Story-specific ads ('sponsorships') These are ads that receive exclusive placement within a story (although each page in the story also carries the regular banner ads at the top and bottom). The advertiser has nothing to do with the creation of the content but is simply paying for a premium advertising position. However, because of the ad's placement within the story, it is essential to make the relationship (or lack thereof) between the ad and the editorial clear to readers. For this reason, publishing sites should not use the term sponsor (or sponsored content, sponsorship, or any other permutation), because in the context of the Web we feel it could be misunderstood by readers. The ad window must contain the word advertisement. Certain types of stories that may be 'sponsored' by a single advertiser may call for an alternative treatment. For example, the 'Gamecenter Awards for 96' story was designed with an Oscars-style theme, in which the ad window was incorporated into the title graphic and was labeled 'brought to you by?' In the context of this TV-style presentation, that label can clearly be understood to mean the advertiser is simply an advertiser, not a partner in the creation of the editorial. Advertising links These links appear within stories and other editorial matter that relate to the product being advertised. The external links to advertisers' sites must carry the label advertiser links (not sponsor links). Special advertising sections A special advertising section is a set of advertising pages that includes one or more pages of editorial-like text, all of which are unified by a theme. The text may be supplied or developed by an advertiser, by noneditorial staff, or by a third-party; however, the entire section is paid for by one or more advertisers. The layout, design, and typeface of special advertising sections should be distinctly different from the host site's normal layout, design, and typeface. The host site's name or logo should not appear on any of the advertising pages except in the normal usage in the navigation toolbar and footers. The advertiser of the section should be clearly identified. Editors' names should not appear on or be associated with special advertising sections, nor should the names of regular contributors be associated with special advertising sections. The host site's name or logo should not appear as any part of the headlines or text of such sections. Editors and other editorial staff should not prepare advertising sections for the host site, for other publications in the same field or for advertisers in the computers, technology, and Internet businesses. To avoid potential conflicts or overlaps with editorial content, the editor in chief, managing editor, or ranking editorial staff should be notified well in advance of any plan to run special advertising sections. To monitor compliance with the guidelines, the editor in chief, managing editor, or ranking editorial employee must receive nonstandard advertisement packages with ample time for review and to recommend any necessary changes. This may include reading the text of the special advertising section before publication for problems of fact, interpretation, and taste, and for compliance with any relevant laws. Contests/sweepstakes These packages are created by the host site's marketing department and are marketing tools rather than editorial material. A contest may or may not have an advertiser. When a contest or sweepstakes is sponsored by an advertiser, the ad window and any portals should be labeled advertisement. ALTERNATIVE 1: When a contest or sweepstakes is sponsored by an advertiser, the ad window on the contest pages themselves can be labeled brought to you by or sponsored by without blurring the line between advertising and editorial, since the noneditorial nature of a contest is intuitively understood by readers. However, any ad windows or portals that promote the contest elsewhere on the host site should follow the rules for ad windows and portals: they should be labeled advertisement.   ALTERNATIVE 2: Use the brought to you by or sponsored by label on anything relating to contests or sweepstakes, including ad windows. Targeting ads Clearly, the trend in advertising on the Internet is towards targeting specific users, sections and keywords for the delivery of a specific ad. Not only will this benefit the advertiser by allowing it to get its ad viewed by the most qualified audience, but it will benefit users by presenting ads that are more contextual than randomly delivered ads on subjects they have entirely no interest in.   Although easy and accurate ad targeting is not yet possible, it is important to think through the ramifications and make recommendations to the Internet Advertising Bureau and various ad-server vendors (Accipiter, NetGravity, AdKnowledge, RealMedia) on methods and standards that will allow publishing sites the greatest control for managing potential conflicts.   One suggestion is to create a meta tag, such as <ad_target>, that would allow ad-server software a command to target, as well as a meta tag, such as <ad_exclude> that would allow editorial departments the ability to exclude certain ads from specific content.   Once the technologies have been developed, acceptable guidelines must be deployed. Below is a table for illustrative purposes outlining potential options for handling targeted ads. The text in italics is the consensus for the time being.   Guidelines for targeting advertising (alternative scenarios)