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Blue-chip ads, red-light content

Ads for major U.S. companies are appearing next to racy and extreme user-submitted content on popular sites. Images: Brought to you by Blue Chips

Now playing: "Lovely girls from Chile show off their upskirt flavor in the school's courtyard." Sponsored by Apple Computer and AT&T.

Earlier this month, that was the actual pitch for a video that's available on the "Girls Girls Girls" playlist at the popular Ifilm Web site, complete with advertisements for the new MacBook Pro and AT&T's broadband service.

Those weren't the only companies sponsoring the video, which shows a parade of apparently high-school-age girls in skirts walking up to and over a shoe-top video camera. After clicking on the thumbnail image, a media player window pops up, displaying the video, which is labeled "mature" on the site. Next to the images is an ad for Comcast that blurts, "It's Comcastic!"

Informed of the juxtaposition of the ads and the video, and other ad-and-video juxapositions of arguably dubious taste on a second Web site, AT&T said it was looking into the matter.

"AT&T has advertising policies to ensure our ads are placed in appropriate mediums consistent with the company's brand," AT&T said in a statement. "It appears the sites in question were part of a large buy vs. a specific target. To date, we've had no complaints or concerns. We are reviewing these sites, and if we determine that it is an inappropriate placement, we will discontinue advertising on those sites."

Apple declined to comment.

Seeing ads from blue-chip companies such as Apple and AT&T next to sexually charged or graphically violent videos may be shocking to parents and corporate marketing departments, but it should hardly come as a surprise. The growing popularity of sites that rely on user-generated content--from blogs to podcasts to homemade video clips--and the continuing embrace of the Web by Fortune 500 advertisers almost ensures that such a collision would occur.

"It's not a unique problem to video," said David Card, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "There is a reason why in Web 1.0 it was difficult to monetize chat rooms. A lot of people didn't want to advertise there."

Blue Chip ads

Clearly, mainstream companies are unlikely to want to see their ads next to questionable content. But it can happen when they or their ad buyers participate in networks in which they target a specific demographic.

Take, for example, a telecom company advertising broadband access services to young adults on a Web site that features bandwidth-intensive videos. The ad buyer in this case is dependent on the site where the ads appear to be diligent in screening and properly identifying content the advertisers don't want their ads to appear next to.

A Comcast spokeswoman said the company had no idea its ads were next to mature content on the Ifilm site until informed by CNET News.com.

"This was an error that was made and it's been corrected. We are taking steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again," said Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer. "The bottom line is we had no intention of having our ads placed alongside this content on their site."

Roger Jackson, vice president of content and programming for Hollywood-based Ifilm, which is owned by MTV Networks, said ads should not have appeared next to video clips the company has rated "mature." At the time of publication, Ifilm was implementing a software-based fix to resolve the problem "so even search results pages will not have any mature content in them that matches with an advertiser," he said.

"I'm assuming it's a one-off bug," Jackson told CNET News.com. "I'm frankly astonished that you have a screenshot (of ads next to mature video clips) because we've spent thousands of hours as a company over several years coming up with systematic solutions to issues like this that keeps both our advertisers and our users happy."

Ads for AT&T also showed up on the site of free video hosting site VidiLife.com, in the "Sinful Sirens" channel next to thumbnails for videos with titles like "lingerie bowl 3," "Lap Dance" and others even more salacious in nature. Representatives at VidiLife.com did not return a call seeking comment.

Ads for numerous other mainstream companies were found next to wince-inducing content on eBaum's World, a site that offers cash for user-generated content.

In the extreme-movies section on eBaum's World, ads for Cisco, Dish Network, Verizon Wireless and Monster.com ran adjacent to a video in which a man calmly shows off a huge, gaping hole in his leg. Next to the video of someone pulling a toenail off with pliers were ads from Verizon, Circuit City and, fittingly, Lamisil, a nail fungus treatment. Monster.com also had an ad next to video of a man chewing and swallowing a live mouse.

Dish Network could not be reached for comment late on Wednesday. Spokespeople for Circuit City and Cisco said they were looking into the matter.

"The placement you referenced is a clear violation of our online advertising policy and not something Monster wants to be associated with in any way," a Monster.com spokesperson said. "The ads referenced above have been removed and the issue has already been addressed with our vendor."

A Verizon Wireless representative said: "In this case, Verizon Wireless did not contract to run any ads on eBaum's World and has identified it as a prohibited site. We are seeking out the online ad network in violation of our policy and taking action."

"For Verizon corporate and the wireline business, I can report that our agencies must conform to very strict company guidelines about where any of our ads appear in any media," Jim Smith, director of Verizon media relations, wrote in an e-mail. "When our online ad orders are placed, the insertion orders that we have with network partners are explicit as to prohibitions against appearing in the context of sexual, political or hate content.

"We can opt out of entire content areas and placements are monitored to be sure no inappropriate sites get included inadvertently," Smith said. "As for user-uploaded content, that activity is dynamic and can occur spontaneously. We do scan for such activity. If either in our scans or in reports from others we find such appearances, we can and do immediately opt out of those positions."

Karl Heberger, advertising director at eBaum's World, said mainstream advertisers were attracted to his Web site because of the 900,000 unique visitors it gets each day.

"We're not adult so we don't show nudity. That's pretty much where we draw the line," he said. On the extreme parts of the site, "there is nothing you wouldn't see on cable."

While some companies will try to steer clear of Web sites with mature and extreme content, others will seek them out, said Jupiter Research analyst Card.

"Companies that make skateboards and sneakers and get-out-of-debt-fast (offers) are going to want to reach that audience," he said. "They'll put up with being next to content of dubious morality. And there are some big brands that won't go near it."