November 13, 2003

Toys R Us and Sexual Assault of Children - Advertisers need to consider content that will surround their ads

I was just reading a current news item on the ABCNews web site (found via Google News headlines) and saw something that advertisers should be aware of when placing ads.

First, a little background: the news story is about how three suspects in a sexual assault case will not be tried as adults, even though the crime they are accused of is quite serious and the accused are all between 16 and 17 years old. Two of the alleged victims are 14 and 13 years old.

This story is being talked about quite a bit here in the states since many suspects in this age group are often charged as adults, but these suspects will be treated as juveniles in the court system. Victims' family members said the judge's ruling Wednesday to treat them as juveniles apparently means the three accused boys will get nothing more than probation and therapy

The story goes into some details of the accusations over a three-page article on their web site. The first page provides some details of the alleged assault:

"the suspects could have faced 26 felony counts in the incident, in which two 16-year-olds and one 17-year-old allegedly sodomized the younger boys with a broomstick, pine cones and golf balls."

The first page ends just a few paragraphs from this rather graphic explanation. At the top of the second page, there is an in-page ad that you have to view and scroll past to continue reading. In this case, it was an ad for Toys R Us offering their latest catalog, so in big bold letters, the ad offers you "The Big Toy Book". This ad was rather shocking to me as a reader. Here, I'm reading a disturbing piece about young boys allegedly being cruelly sexually assaulted, and then I get a nice big cheery offer for a "big toy book." What are the brand implications for Toys R Us? Did their marketing department really want to associate their brand with sex crimes involving children? I'm sure not.

Tip for advertisers: don't buy advertising on news sites where your brand may be placed next to things with bad connotations. I recall when the movie "Schindler's List" was broadcast on television here in the states. The entire broadcast was sponsored by Ford and, as I recall, the advertising was very solemn and respectful of the content of the movie. It wasn't a time for a fun "Zoom Zoom" style of advertising. It wasn't a case where commercial interruptions of any sort would work - so the broadcast was uninterrupted.

Generally, advertisers should look at solutions like Google's AdSense that contextualizes advertising to the content. But more importantly, they can't look just at a web site's "reach", but must also look at the context in which their ad will be viewed. Advertisers need to consider the brand experience. may attract the right demographics that Toys R Us was trying to reach, but I'm sure they never wanted their brand or their "Big Toy Book" associated with sodomy or the sexual assault of children.

Placing ads in the midst of content forces a reader to try and associate the ad with what they are reading. Ads should therefore not be place in the middle of content. Ads are almost always separate in content and purpose, and therefore should be kept in a separate "chunk" in the page layout.

As far as I know, Toys R Us is a great company. I shop there all the time. They sell great toys (like this cool mega-sphere). But they need to talk to ABC about where their ads are running if they're going to continue advertising with

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