Spam issue is our fight

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There are two trends every marketer should follow with laser focus in 2003. First is the shift in how consumers watch TV, enabled by the growth of services such as TiVo, Sonic Blue's Replay and the HBO on Demand service of AOL Time Warner. The second is the continued, unchecked and explosive growth of spam and, dare I say, intrusive "pop-up" online advertising.

The two are dangerously related, and every brand-builder needs to recognize that relationship. Like the hole in the globe's ozone layer, spam is burning a hole into advertising's future by eroding trust in all forms of sponsored messaging. Moreover, it is speeding up the spread of TV ad-filtering services and souring the willingness of consumers to test new ad formats.

Consumers and brand-builders alike will get burned unless those of us in the marketing/advertising field take action now. The latest Harris Poll survey finds 80% of U.S. Internet users are "very annoyed" by spam, up from 49% in 2000. Fully 74% of Americans now support outlawing bulk e-mail (something the European Union did in May 2002).

Marketers continue to look at advertising channels in silos-TV, online, print, direct mail, spam, etc.-while consumers lump it all into one big marketing/advertising pot. The most vulnerable victim of "spam gone wild" is not just direct marketing, one-to-one or permission marketing-it is TV advertising. Think about the millions upon millions of recent spam-filtering software downloads. Such software is priming the pump for millions of consumers to take full advantage of ad-skipping, whether it is online or offline.

Frustration and anger with spam is also fueling a general distrust of advertisers. In a 2002 PlanetFeedback consumer survey, advertisers garnered a paltry 6% level of trust-ranking below scandal-plagued CEOs, chief financial officers and Catholic clergy. Lacking discipline, self-control, common sense and a broader vision, the marketing-advertising community created this problem. It needs to get control soon before the problem turns back and bites us where it counts.

dial up industry's urgency

nIgnite industry leadership. The big advertisers (Kraft Foods, Unilever, Procter & Gamble Co., Sony Corp.) and associations (Association of National Advertisers/American Association of Advertising Agencies) need to dial up their urgency with this issue. In theory, the Direct Marketing Association should lead, but it has divided internal constituencies and has been painfully ineffective. Nor have publishers and Internet service providers led. They're understandably tepid about calling into question their still-nascent online ad models. Big advertisers must lead, and lead now.

* Expand the definition of spam. "Spam" should include pop-up advertising or any free-floating unit that creates a usability distraction or an instinctual "delete" reaction.

* Enforce discipline, set the right bar. Let's match our smug finger-pointing at the "usual suspects" (porn-mailers, Nigerian rogues. etc.) with an equally righteous focus on large, established advertisers, that blanket-no, ambush-the Web with distracting pop-ups. If the big players can't self-regulate or lead by example, we'll get nowhere.

* Adopt e-mail trust marks. Apply to e-mail and online advertising the model of BBB-Online or Trust-E trust marks and seals of approval. Companies must play by strict rules of permission marketing to earn that mark. Consumers need something to trust.

* Reward the good eggs. Some ISPs and publishers are taking a fresh look at spam. Earthlink, Apple Computer Co. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN have built-in spam filters. AOL Time Warner's America Online is halting all pop-ups but its own. We should reward them.

In 1998, I co-chaired P&G's Future of Advertising Stakeholders summit. Our goal: Shape a new Web medium that worked for everyone: agencies, publishers, advertisers and consumers. We agreed to test new ad models and messaging until we found a win-win formula.

When the economy went south and the dot-com romance turned sour, the discussion lost momentum. Since then, marketers have redefined "permission marketing" in excessively liberal terms, in effect blanketing consumers with messages wherever they turn. The collective exhaust is suffocating them. In desperation, they are reaching for the high-tech gas masks to filter out the offensive odor of spam.

All of us who have a vested interest in the future of advertising, online or offline, have a stake in fixing this. Put spam at the top of the advertising agenda for 2003. We need to start talking and acting now, before it's too late.

Pete Blackshaw, a former leader of Procter & Gamble Co.'s interactive advertising efforts, is founder, chief marketing officer and client satisfaction officer at PlanetFeedback, Cincinnati, a consumer feedback tools and application provider.

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