Monday, August 15, 2011

Ethics | A tasteless ad, on barely credited work

[Screenshot of Allstate pre-roll on Indiana fair collapse video]

Two readers -- one at USA Today, the other here on Gannett Blog -- make critical points about the newspaper's use of amateur cellphone video in its coverage of the Indiana state fair stage collapse, which killed five people and injured 45 others on Saturday.

On its site, the paper has embedded video of the incident from YouTube user cavaliers60, and then inserted a pre-roll: a 15-second paid Allstate ad that looks unintentionally particularly tasteless and opportunistic, given the circumstances. At one point, the words "mayhem is everywhere" appear onscreen during the insurer's faux-violent spot.

USAT reader trx430ex says in a comment: "Pretty lame USAToday using a cell phone video from a user then putting a commercial in front of it, AP or Reuters didn't have film?"

Indeed, trx430ex says another YouTube user -- JSilas7 -- offers far, far better footage. And they're right; it's amazing.

Credit's hard to see
What's more, USAT doesn't directly credit the video to the YouTube user. Viewers only figure that out at the end. (Cavaliers60 notes the video was actually taken by someone else.) Plus, there's nothing to indicate USAT is sharing any of the Allstate revenue, either.

Compare all this to The Indianapolis Star, which uses the same raw video posted by USAT. But the Star prominently credits cavaliers60 -- and the paper isn't running any pre-rolls, either.

The video's use raises ethical if not legal questions about a large, for-profit publisher directly profiting from the work of a citizen journalist. USAT certainly earns advertising revenue from pageviews generated by reader comments. But in this case, the Allstate bucks are tied directly to the work of an individual.

Who monitors adjacencies?
There's also the issue of control over ads when their content is accidentally tied to editorial subjects. In the print world, advertisers typically have had standing orders to pull or move their ads to avoid bad adjacencies. For example, airlines don't want to pay for advertising when the news is dominated by an airplane crash. I assume this is still the case in the digital world.

Maybe Allstate likes this adjacency. But I doubt it; why would the company want to look so calculating? [Updated at 9:49 a.m. ET: Anonymous@9:38 a.m. correctly and smartly points out in a comment, below, that Allstate pre-rolls now appear on all USAT videos on all subjects.]

Here's the video as it appears on the newspaper's site, with the Allstate preroll still appearing as I post this. And here it is on cavaliers60's YouTube page.


  1. It's because the local sites have less and less control over their own content and advertising.

    I know it's no consolation, but given that local sites are forbidden from dealing with national advertisers for online placements, they're probably making peanuts. Also, the reason no one has caught it yet (aside from the ever downsizing newsrooms and advertising departments) is because no one at the local site sold that ad.

    Likewise, the national sales team does not inform the locals when something is going to run on their own site. In fact, I've seen several times where two high-impact ads were running on the same day -- or that the locally sold high-impact ad (which makes tons more than nationally sold) will get bumped because the $1,200 on one site is less than the $5,000 national roadblock.

    In fact, to 'fix' these kinds of problems, the national sales team has created a special highest priority ad placement for themselves where the local markets can't even see who the buy is for, change it, or put in an override if something is tasteless. No, the puny locals have to call and plead their case with some corporate bureaucrat (who won't even take your call, or return messages from peons like you).

  2. In this case, is USA Today a "local site?" In other words, its ad sales department doesn't control all the ad placements on its videos?

  3. My org chart got lost a while back, so I can't remember if the National Sales team and USAT sales team have been consolidated yet ;-) I'd put money on it, though, that they are still completely separate.

  4. Sigh...Jim, it appears having clicked on more than one video (which you apparently didn't bother to do) that Allstate is sponsoring ALL the videos. Sports ones. Death in Afghanistan ones. The fair one. It's not like someone went out and said "let's tie this inappropriate ad with this video so we can be unethical and make money off of this freebie."

  5. 9:38 Of course, no one made that conscious choice.

    Indeed, as I wrote: "Maybe Allstate likes this adjacency. But I doubt it; why would the company want to look so calculating?"

    In an case, does the reader/viewer who watches only this video know Allstate has bought all the ads on all the videos?

    Could the ads from this and at least one, earlier Indiana fair video have been pulled? After all, the Allstate ads have now been running since at least 1:30 p.m. ET yesterday.

  6. Or you could not blow this out of proportion like you're doing.

    Ads for insurance agencies are played all the time on network television after terrible news. Same goes for placement of ads in print publications.

    You are making up ways to slam Gannett that are flimsy at best. For a company that has a significant number of reasons to blast them, this is absolutely not one of them.

  7. Apparently 11:00 has never worked in the advertising industry. If Allstate knew this was running and no one at G did anything about it, they'd be pretty T'd. Likewise, if this was a smaller pub and the publisher caught wind of this, someone could lose their job. Blown out of proportion? Only for an armchair quarterback.

    "It wasn't me! I didn't do it on purpose!"

    "But you watched it happen, and did nothing."

  8. I fear you're still missing the point:

    This isn't USA Today's video, yet the paper is making money off it.

  9. Craig Sevier8/15/2011 1:01 PM

    As an aside: this isn't that unusual, unfortunately. My site had a very prominent gun store ad running with a gunshot gang killing of some kid -- who wasn't in a gang. Since I actually read, then, both the print and online versions every single day (I know! What a concept!), I called our online people, asked to speak to the head guy, a decent sort who would probably want to know. At least in "Drano," most staff I gathered did not read their own product. I wasn't transferred. I got the "mind your own business" deal from some widget a year out of school.

    I hung up and did just that.

  10. My former Gannett newsletter, I mean paper, had a story about some big murder shooting and on the jump page, where most of the sotry ran, there was a house ad to subscribe.

    The headline: GET BLOWN AWAY!

  11. "Likewise, if this was a smaller pub and the publisher caught wind of this, someone could lose their job."

    Nope. Not even close.

    Again, some are looking for problems where there are none. Sorry for your lack of scope or perspective.

    "This isn't USA Today's video, yet the paper is making money off it."

    Great. Good for them. Doing more with less.

  12. Ad technology working at its best.

    Contextual ad serving....not humans....are behind this.

    Welcome to the age of digital.

  13. I hate those Allstate Mayhem ads. I always find them tasteless. And almost any adjacency – TV, print, online – ends up being distasteful too, especially in connection with news.

    As for using outside video, it's almost a non-issue. If someone wants to protect it, copyright it. Otherwise, public domain seems to rule what shows up on YouTube or about anywhere else.

  14. 3:07 p.m., I totally agree with you. If I see one of those Allstate ads on TV, I walk away or change the channel. I would not sit through even a 15-second Allstate ad online, even if I was interested in the video after the ad. Which I wouldn't be on any Gannett site, I guess.

  15. First, how does Allstate feel about having their ad tied to a story like that? They may not have a problem, or maybe they would have preferred having a different commercial (other than the "Mayhem" series) roll before the video.
    Second, I don't know what happens when you post content to YouTube. Do you lose all rights to it? Is it now in the public domain? If so, then USAToday is just being cheap, but it's not illegal or even unethical.
    If the person who posts videos, or whatever, to YouTube retains rights to that information, then someone from USAToday better be finding out who gets a check, or else pull the video until ownership is sorted out (which wouldn't happen because it would be old news at that point). I just don't know how YouTube works in that respect.

  16. Jim said "Indeed, trx430ex says another YouTube user -- JSilas7 -- offers far, far better footage. And they're right; it's amazing."

    This footage was, sadly, way too clear. It's like you were actually there in the stands, watching.
    On a side note, if that was taken on a phone camera, I want to know which one.

  17. The new "online NOW - and I want it free" generation will eventually reap what it sows. Shoddy stories, shoddy placement, shoddy decision-making across the board in the name of quickness and eeking out any money possible.

    I'm actually glad I was among the June cuts. I'm running away from news and NEVER coming back!

  18. It's astounding the sheer ignorance that people in the news business have with regard to anything online. No wonder Gannett's sliding down the shitter.

    1. Ad systems don't account for the adjacency problem. When I had conflicts on certain stories at a G website, the solution was to turn ads entirely off on entire sections.

    2. YouTube posters don't cede any copyright. By posting to YT, you do by default give other users the ability to embed your video (using the YT system, not another) on their sites. Embedding can be disabled by ticking a simple checkbox in the editing interface.

  19. This is what happens when mediocre reporters like Jim try to run with stories about things they don't understand.

    It's bad enough that today's reporters cannot write a complete sentence without screwing it up, but it's even worse when they are too lazy and clueless to do the homework for the reporting. How do these people get hired?

  20. I often (almost always) agree with your assessments of our former company, but your comment about making money off video produced by someone else is a cheap shot. AP does this all the time -- except they go one step further and put their branding on it so that it looks like AP video. It's raw footage and this type of content is readily accepted and available and they should not think twice about using it or monetizing it. The value of the USAT product is the space as much as the content, so why shouldn't they make money on anything that appears in their space. Too many people think that the web is public domain and everyone should have full access to it. That's simply not the case. The space USAT (and any other company) has was paid for and continues to be funded with developers and designers. They should be able to do anything they want with that space to recoup their investments.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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