War Underway, Online Ad Industry Treads Carefully

Now that the war in Iraq is underway, online publishers and advertisers have begun to carefully navigate the thicket of issues regarding advertising during wartime.

For most publishers and advertisers, the short-term goal is to tread carefully with sensibilities, erring on the side of caution so as to not offend a tense public. The hope is that the war, which has already played a central role in providing up-to-date information to an anxious public, will mark a turning point for the Internet, much like the Gulf War legitimized cable news. In the opening stages of the conflict, publishers and advertisers have mostly adopted a wait-and-see approach, judging on a case-by-case basis which marketing messages are appropriate.

Publishers Stand Down

With visitors streaming to the Web for information about such a serious and grim matter, online publishers have been left with a dilemma: Ads on television news automatically get pulled during war coverage, but Web ads have a different relationship with the content, running alongside, rather than interrupting, it. Still, the potential of offending already tense viewers has led most news sites to impose a short-term moratorium on ads running near war-related stories.

At MSNBC.com, the site stripped ads from the site on Wednesday, after the war officially began, for an initial 48-hour period. Likewise, CNN.com and Yahoo! News have pulled advertising from their war stories. At NYTimes.com, in the site’s special section, “A Nation at War,” advertising has been pulled. Washingtonpost.com, however, has not adopted any hard-and-fast rule, choosing instead to work with individual advertisers to suit their needs.

In a bid to make its site more accessible, NYTimes.com suspended its registration requirement on Wednesday night the first time it has suspended it since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

MSNBC.com President Scott Moore said the move to go ad-free for the short term was easy.

“We been through enough of these situations,” he said. “The idea is, let’s be conservative.”

Advertisers Get Anxious, Discrete

Many online advertisers have taken a cautious approach, pulling back on campaigns until the course of the war becomes clearer.

“They don’t want to be viewed as taking advantage of an increase in traffic to these sites,” said David Cohen, interactive media director at Universal-McCann Interactive.

Part of this caution results from the conduct of the war. Instead of the “shock and awe” the Pentagon advertised for the opening stages, the conflict has proceeded at a meandering pace, with the cruise missile attacks Wednesday night beginning a methodical ratcheting up of the pressure on Iraq.

The reaction of advertisers varies, Cohen said, but some categories have more worries than others. “Those in travel are in DefCon Three mode,” he said, seeing many travel clients halting campaigns. Meanwhile, Zentropy’s Mark Redetzke said some of his clients, like a dog-food manufacturer, do not worry about their ads, since they are unlikely to run near war-related content.

Jeff Lanctot, director of media at interactive agency Avenue A, said advertisers need to examine their approaches on all sites, but sites with news presented the trickiest challenges.

“Context is always important,” he said. “In this case, it’s more important.”

Washingtonpost.com spokesman Don Marshall said some advertisers were wary of campaigns running during the opening stages of the battle. “We have had some advertisers asking to put their campaigns on hold for the beginning of hostilities,” he said, adding that it was just a “handful.”

Likewise, at NYTimes.com, a smattering of advertisers pulled back, according to spokeswoman Christine Mohan.

“Some have decided to postpone their campaigns, and some have requested that their ads be moved to other sections.”

Even sites not thought of as destinations for war coverage have felt some aftershocks. Forbes.com’s chief advertising officer, Bill Flatley, said about a dozen of the site’s advertisers had put campaigns on hold for the next few days.

“Discretion is the biggest question,” said Gary Stein, an analyst with Jupiter Research, which is owned by the parent company of this site. “The wait-and-see approach is in a sense postponing that decision about discretion.”

Online Looks to Fare Well

Unlike the challenges facing higher-profile media like TV and print, online has some characteristics working in its favor, according to agency executives.

First, the real-time nature of the Internet allows publishers and advertisers to adjust campaigns on the go, unlike the more cumbersome process of planning TV and print ads.

“We have a great deal of flexibility with how we manage our inventory and how we can shift our campaigns,” said aQuantive’s Lanctot. “That flexibility in marketing is in large part what makes online advertising a pretty safe and risk-free advertising option compared to other options.”

Lanctot said most clients were not halting campaigns altogether, since the long run-up to war gave them plenty of time to come up with strategies.

Another factor working in the favor of online advertising is that its ads, for the most part, are less interruptive then those in TV. At ABCNews.com, the site has banished pop-up ads, as a way to give viewers a less intrusive experience. Both NYTimes.com and washingtonpost.com have not instituted a set policy for pop-under ads, while evaluating what is appropriate for each advertiser.

Lanctot said he advised clients not to run intrusive rich media ads on sites where visitors were looking for war news.

“Advertisers don’t want to interrupt the flow of information,” said Jupiter’s Stein. “They don’t want to be in your face with crass commercialization.”

Finally, online advertising might be benefiting from its biggest weakness: the low priority it gets in ad campaigns.

Zentropy Partners’ Redetzke said marketers should look at their advertising messages across all media. Often, however, he has found that is not the case.

“They don’t hold the Internet in as equal regard as TV,” he said. “It shouldn’t be viewed differently, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be.”

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