In case you haven't heard, the Federal Trade Commission and the Center for Democracy and Technology are trying to scare the crapware out of the online ad industry. They're hoping to starve the bad guys out of business by naming advertisers that fuel bad adware through indiscriminate or poorly policed ad spending.
Does this mean that marketers whose ads turn up on any adware or ad network now risk being "named and shamed"? No.
I was an invited panelist at the recent Anti-Spyware Coalition Workshop in Washington, D.C., and heard FTC commissioner Jon Leibowitz speak of naming advertisers that fund deceptive adware that gets on peoples' computers without notice or consent and may therefore be targeted by the FTC. And the CDT put this right on page one of its recently released bombshell: "This report addresses issues associated with nuisance or harmful adware and not with all adware in general" (emphasis mine).
Both the CDT and Commissioner Leibowitz have also expressed support for TRUSTe's much-anticipated Trusted Download Program, which aims to "direct advertising dollars and distribution opportunities to downloadable software which demonstrates informed consumer choice, doesn't exhibit surreptitious activities and gives control back to users."
Clearly, not all adware is considered badware.
So what's a buyer to do? You could simply abstain from all adware (and to be consistent, maybe abstain from working with all behavioral targeting or even all advertising networks whose analytics and third-party tracking cookies raise concerns while you're at it). As thought leaders, we can't operate successfully by making simplistic decisions; successful online marketing involves a certain amount of pioneering. But how do you strike the right balance?
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down/That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun."
The Wernher von Braun approach to media buying is dead. Advertisers, media planners, networks and everyone else up and down the line must bust open the black box and stop acting like the rocket scientist lampooned in Tom Lehrer's lyric. This is much broader than simply an adware issue.
The truth is that you can get the incredible click-through and conversion rates that behavioral targeting delivers without the risks by taking some basic steps:
You could wait for TRUSTe to roll out its white list. But why wait? Why not do your own due diligence? Why not make this the month that you take control of your ad buys?
I've learned from my experience at WhenU that pruning and policing are hard, but worth it. And even the most tightly policed distribution network may sometimes spring a leak. Nothing is perfect, but what matters is whether such glitches are extremely rare and dealt with swiftly, or part of an obvious pattern of irresponsible behavior and evasion of accountability. Those who play the blame game by shifting responsibility to intermediaries are missing the point.
The point is that companies that consistently fail to demonstrate a willingness to embrace accountability do not deserve a place in your media buys. And buyers who do their homework, take responsibility and insist on accountability can garner extraordinary advertising results while helping to make the Internet a safer and more transparent place for all.