Bad Acting

Now that the media spotlight moves towards mobile, predictably the bad actors start getting a disproportionate share of attention. As OnlineMediaDaily's own Wendy Davis reports this morning, Google is on the receiving end of a lawsuit involving deceptive practices among some of its ringtone advertisers. Google has a standing policy about how landing pages for these ads must outline terms and conditions in a fair way. The litigant claims Google is not enforcing its own policy. This suit comes on the heels of a settlement with AT&T last week over phone charges involving mobile content subscriptions.

As Wendy and her sources point out, Google probably is not liable for breaches. And my own quick check of ringtone searches on Google turns up respectable players in the market: Thumplay, Flycell, Myxer and iTunes. I was curious about mobile searches, however, and there my "50 cent" and "Beyonce" queries turned up only Thumbplay and Flycell ads. Both links went to responsible, descriptive landing pages that laid out the subscription offer above the fold. I was less impressed with the ad that topped a "ringtone" search result on Google Mobile, since it asked for my phone number and pitched an offer on the top screen, while the $9.99/month subscription requirement didn't come until well beneath the Continue button -- literally the last words on the second screen of description.

Hoping a customer will overlook the real cost and commitment to mobile content subs has become too common a marketing game. At last month's Federal Trade Commission conference "Beyond Voice," a Florida prosecutor laid out his staff's research in the market. It is a bit chilling to see the many ways in which ringtone marketers use color, type faces and placement to mask the terms and conditions in their Web ads. Deception in this arena is so commonplace now that a whole new generation of mobile content ads acknowledge the scams as part of their pitch ("No, really, our ringtones are free").

In addition to all the ways bad actors like these muddy the entire mobile content eco-system, one of the worst parts of this dust-up is that it sullies the good name of "free." On the Web free content usually means the user accepts some sort of ad support. For the time being users will associate "free" on mobile with scam. We may need to come up with new terminology, like "Sponsored Ringtones" or "Sponsored Games."

On the whole, I think the U.S. market has remained remarkably clean when it comes to mobile commerce practices. The level of actual SMS spam here seems quite low compared to the other markets. The carriers were very quick to enforce a fairly rigid set of standards regarding mobile content offers and uses of their billing systems. I have no raw stats to support my sense that fraud and deception around mobile content in the U.S. is minimal, but anecdotally my own experience testing and using scores of phones across all the carriers suggests a content economy that is much less polluted than Web, email or direct mail.

But I am sure there are many others with horror stories of unfair and outrageous billing, so feel free to comment below.

But all of this comes to mind as we bid farewell to Laura Marriott as the head of the Mobile Marketing Association. Laura announced this week she would be stepping down after three years as MMA President and the public face of mobile marketing worldwide. I think the relative sanity of the current mobile media business in the U.S. is due in no small part to Laura and the MMA's efforts. As a media critic and journalist, I am bred to ignore half of what trade organizations say about their industry. Most of them simply throw cover fire for their member companies' ethical lapses and issue industry "best practices" and "guidelines" with large enough holes for any but the worst companies to drive through easily.

I think this is a good moment to note that generally the MMA has done a much better job of collaborating with all players in the industry and creating standards with rigor and real teeth. That is rare in the digital media realm. Even as we continue to police the borders to shun the deceptive practices that always seem to crop up at the birth of a new medium, I think we can be proud of keeping the garden neat and tidy for all these years that the garden walls were solid and high. The real challenge will be in the coming years, as open source, open platforms and a more open mobile Web widens the stage for bad actors.
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