IMM: RISKY BUSINESS: SELLING WEB PORN ADS STIRS DEBATE: SEARCH ENGINES DEFEND OR DECRY SALES PRACTICE

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Pornography ads are nothing new on the Net, especially on search engine sites. But the ethics and guidelines governing the context in which these ads run, and the type of banner creative allowed, are receiving fresh scrutiny.

Currently, Yahoo!, Excite, Infoseek Corp. and HotBot accept porn ads, while AltaVista and Lycos do not accept such advertising.

Controversy erupted recently when Los Angeles Web developer Greg Bulmash, in a posting to the Online Advertising Discussion List (www.o-a.com), complained that in a series of searches on Yahoo!, the word "butt," which he thought could be typed in by a child looking for "Beavis & Butt-head" and in other innocent queries, pulled up porn ads. One of the ads contained a message faking a Windows error, and when Mr. Bulmash clicked on the button to ignore the error, he was taken to a jump page with lewd animation.

"My feeling is that there's no way we're going to stop it," said Mr. Bulmash. "I wouldn't want to stop it, but we need to put some more stumbling blocks between the kids and the porn."

GUIDELINES SUGGESTED

Mr. Bulmash suggested search engines improve their guidelines by adding an adult verification system on jump pages, evaluating key words sold to porn sites and checking banner creative.

Jeffrey Mallett, senior VP-business operations, Yahoo!, acknowledged that some keywords are inappropriate for porn ads, and that it is looking into the one cited by Mr. Bulmash. "That's unfortunate that ad got up on the site-that's outside our guidelines," he said.

Yahoo! requires that all porn ads have a jump page, directing all under-18 users off the site.

Since deciding to accept porn ads last year, Mr. Mallett said that not only has it been profitable for Yahoo!, but only a handful of users have complained about the ads.

$700,000 MEDIA BUY

Porn sites are spending a startling amount on Web advertising. Mark Grimes, president of Portland, Ore., media agency Eyescream Interactive, said his agency recently placed a $700,000 media buy for a porn company on a top-25 trafficked search engine site. According to the September 1997 WebTrack report from Jupiter Communications, Mr. Grimes said that ranks the porn company fourth among top spenders in online ad spending for the month.

Porn companies "are standing in line to give [search engines] money to link to them," Mr. Grimes said, adding that he doesn't blame sites for accepting the ads when Web revenue is so scarce.

But as search engines rapidly add content to their sites and form partnerships with blue-chip marketers, some industry watchers question whether they should be accepting porn advertising or creating content that attracts it, such as the "R- and X-rated" areas of Excite's Lifestyle Channel, in which Excite staff rate porn sites.

Perry Allison, director of advertising and sponsorship sales at Digital Equipment Corp.'s AltaVista, said that it was not accepting porn ads at this time because "it's not consistent with our brand image."

LYCOS BANS PORN AD SALES

Meanwhile Lycos, which ran porn ads last year, has publicized its ban of the genre."You have to show some degree of restraint given the diversity of people who come in to a search site," said Jan Horsfall, VP-marketing.

The White House is holding a December meeting of the Committee on Child Safety on the Internet, at which Mr. Horsfall said Lycos is playing a role in promoting family-friendly searches. By running porn ads, "I think it's the ultimate in hypocrisy in saying we're doing what's right with kids," he said.

Yahoo!'s Mr. Mallett disagreed, saying it's up to a search engine to openly distribute information. If a search site runs porn listings, "it's contradictory if you don't offer that type of content."

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