Wednesday, October 11

Faking The Net

Benjamin Edelman does a fine job with his blog report False and Deceptive Pay-Per-Click Ads, identifying several Internet advertising scams that range from not-so-free ringtones to discounted rates on software that can be downloaded for free. False advertising, to be sure, is a growing problem, one with roots that can be traced back to traditional print publishers, those often specifically found in the classified section of such publications (and can be easily found today).

As much as I would like to see the world as black and white as Edelman and say that the responsibility falls exclusively on Google to police its advertisers, it seems to me this subject has more shades of gray. Should Google and similar ad programs refuse or cancel known advertising scams? Absolutely. Should they be responsible for policing advertisers, placing the burden of proof on the ad program client before allowing them to advertise? Maybe, but it doesn't seem realistic. Should they be held liable for advertisers that turn out to be scammers? Probably not.

Given that we live in a world where it is sometimes difficult to discern reputable companies (that occasionally slip with an overabundance of disclaimers to mask a catchy headline) from tried-and-true scam artists, one has to wonder where responsibility begins and ends. At Copywrite, Ink., we never accept an assignment from scam artists, but I have to admit that sometimes, they're not easily identifiable. PurchasePro (which was once partnered with AOL) comes to mind. So does Enron.

We never worked with Enron, but I imagine that if it had contacted us in the beginning before being unmasked as one of the biggest scams in the history of the utility industry, we might have been excited by the prospect of working on the account. Had we done so, should we have been responsible for the fallout? I hope not. What about Firestone tires? Several public relations firms tried to turn the company's PR around (only to resign after being asked to lie). But before being asked to lie, were they unknowingly responsible?

Certainly, I believe that publishers, vendors, and even employees have a responsibility to back away from any advertisers who they know to be ethically challenged or engaged in misleading or fraudulent activities. We've backed away from several over the years and even reported one or two that were clearly violating the law. There were also a few accounts we declined not because they were engaged in anything illegal, but because we were philosophically opposed to the product (Bum Fights, for example).

In short, as much as I would like to hold a black and white view of the world, maybe a better answer is strengthening sentencing for those who purposely and willfully mislead the public rather than asking Google to police scammers by canceling their advertising contract (only to have the same people pop up with yet another brand next week). But that's just me.

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