Pitfalls of Online Advertising: RON and the Mounties

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which I’m sure is an effective police force, learned this week that it’s not a very savvy Internet advertiser, despite the force’s good intentions.  I’ll bet they don’t even know why.  Here’s my guess:  they were felled by a concept called “RON” – “Run of Network” ads.

The RCMP ran a new recruiting campaign with banner ads extolling, “Make a Difference. Start Today” with a smiling police officer.  With all good intentions, they turned to online ad network Lycos to place these banners on websites around the Internet, ideally sites targeting young, active people who want to do some good.

Unfortunately, the banners ended up on web sites run by a number of violent gangs, including an infamous LA street gang.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corp discovered this, probably by accident, Reuters sent out an article, and newspapers like the LA Times picked it up.  Yikes.  The ads had to get pulled, the Mounties had egg on their faces, and advertisers who want to be savvy on the web are thinking, “whew, glad it wasn’t me!”

Ad networks do their best to categorize the websites which show their ads.  So ESPN.COM will be under “Sports and Entertainment”, say, and CNN.COM will be under “News”.  Advertisers then pick their desired categories.  But often, websites are hard to categorize, or they slip through the cracks.  An ad network may place ads on 10,000 or even 100,000+ websites – they aren’t all correctly categorized.

“Run of Network” means that your ads will be placed on any or all sites within a network – and they may be displayed on questionable sites which defy categorization.  Advertisers pay lower rates for RON distribution, because it gives more flexibility to the ad network to place the ads.  It’s easier for the advertiser, because the ads get wider distribution.  But there’s a higher risk…

So it’s not surprising the RCMP recruiting banners ended up on a questionable site.  It can also be hard for an ad network to make individual exceptions, when they’re dealing with tens of thousands of websites.  User generated content sites, like MySpace, have this challenge for advertisers, since MySpace does not control the content written on millions of users’ pages.

“Although the Mounties made efforts to ensure the ads did not go on sites that contravene its “core values,” the Internet company Lycos placed the ads by mistake, said a RCMP media spokesman.”

Here’s the wild part:  the RCMP banners were apparently displayed for 46 hours on these sites and viewed about 42,000 times.  I’m impressed that gang sites get so much traffic !?!  And that these gangs might have figured out how to monetize their traffic. 

The question is:  how many times were the ads clicked, and did any of those visitors actually get recruited into the force?  As a brand marketer, I’d hate to see my good name dragged through muddy sites.  But as a performance marketer, I’d provocatively suggest that the value of the campaign lies in the results it generated.

Here’s a similar example from the world I know, education advertising.  Obviously, Capella University and its marketing partners have no idea they’re on badschools.com….  Or maybe these ads really do work for them:

BadSchools.com Capella University ads

RCMP Internet recruiting press release — MAY NO LONGER BE AVAILABLE

Reuters, February 19, 2007:  “Canadian police ads pulled from U.S. gang Web sites” 

L.A. Times, February 20, 2007 “Canadian police pull ads wrongly linked to L.A. gang”


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