That's what advertisers are realizing about advertising on consumer-controlled spaces such as blogs and chat rooms. Recently, Yahoo was sued by the parents of a boy who charged his picture was posted on a site by a pedophile in a user-run Yahoo chat room, and State Farm, PepsiCo and Georgia-Pacific pulled their ads. The Los Angeles Times had to shut down a reader-generated comment "wikitorial" feature after child pornography and obscenity were posted.
Yahoo closed its user-generated chat rooms (although the Yahoo-sponsored rooms are still open), but the scandals have brought advertisers face-to-face with their fears. Is it safe to advertise in places on the Internet that are essentially run by consumers and cannot be controlled? How can they protect themselves and their good names when blog and chat-room users are liable to say and post anything? It's not just pornography or off-color language that worries them. What if consumers got angry about something involving a marketer's brand, and their remarks got linked to across the Internet? Maybe advertising in such open spaces is not worth the risk.
That's certainly true for toy marketers, said Rick Locker, of law firm Locker Greenberg & Brainin, who represents the Toy Industry Association. "Most would view that guerrilla approach as not suitable for their products because they can't control what goes on there."
Other experts say that ducking the risk is not the solution and that there are calculated risks an advertiser can take. "Companies that are going to be successful in this market are those that put some structure and control in the space," said Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics, a consumer-research company for word-of-mouth marketing.
Blogs require caution, but are much more predictable than chat rooms. "The blogs we would encourage people to advertise on have a small number of authors, one, two or three tops. In chat rooms, anyone can post," said Scott Rafer, CEO of Feedster, a blog and RSS search engine and ad network, who is building technology to monitor and filter blogs. The other major difference is that because the postings are predictable, the content can be monitored and controlled by automation or by human beings. If something objectionable is posted, an ad can be pulled within minutes, he added.
But screening on chat rooms isn't possible technologically, and it wasn't possible for Yahoo to oversee its thousands of chat rooms. Advertising attorney Douglas J. Wood, a partner at Reed Smith, said he doesn't think a situation like Yahoo's "rises to a situation where it causes legal liability. The question is how do you take the [principle of legal responsibility] when the publisher can't know what's said before it has actually been said."
Mr. Rafer's filtering technology, which is launching this summer, works partly by collecting and reviewing blog postings over time. He has already run campaigns on large, well-known sites for advertisers such as Sun Microsystems, CMP and Microsoft, he said. To create its RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication, which is a collection of sites whose information is sent to a consumer's desktop), Feedster squirrels away a record of everything a blogger has written to establish a pattern. The firm knows if the blogger uses profanity, proper grammar and spelling, whether the language is on the level of PG-13 or NC-17, even how often they go off topic. The advertiser chooses the set of attributes it can live with. "Then if something objectionable occurs, it would take us about seven minutes to stop the ad," Mr. Rafer said.
It's a really good idea for an advertiser to monitor the tenor and the tone of any site he buys media on, said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer and customer satisfaction officer of customer research firm Intelliseek. "Companies need to be tuned into the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "It's amazing how many companies have no idea about all the bad things that consumers say about them-really vicious." He suggested that public sites could have a registration process for which consumers would need to be approved; anonymous postings would not be allowed. And, if a consumer steps over the line, "perhaps there could be a system to vote them off the island."
Children's entertainment site Kaboose.com has taken an innovative approach to monitoring the 30 tween-age chat rooms it hosts on the Zeeks section of its site. Kaboose pays 150 to 200 parent chaperones to hover behind the scenes and read each message it is posted. No one posts unless they have registered first. Jonathan Graff, president of Kaboose, said the site has 150 advertisers and 95% of its revenue comes from Fortune 500 brands. They include Pillsbury Toaster Strudel and Cheetos, but not surprisingly also include adult-directed ads like Expedia.com and Monster.com.
Monitoring "is costly, but it's a key component of providing a robust kids' experience online," he said.
Certain types of chat rooms pose a huge risk, as they can’t be controlled. Blogs, though, are a little more predictable.