ESPN advertising decisions serve as a reminder for the digital transition

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 8:57 a.m. CDT; updated 2:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 9, 2009

If you aren’t a basketball fan, there is still a good chance you know two of the four teams that made it to this year’s NBA semifinals.  If not, there is still a good chance you know two of the players.  Does Kobe Bryant or LeBron James ring a bell? The debate concerning which one of these athletic anomalies is better has been simmering for quite some time, but the possibility of seeing the two go head-to-head for a championship ring recently caused the public discourse to boil over.  

Two major reasons for this are ad campaigns by Glaceau , whose products include Vitaminwater, and Nike. (Coca-Cola owns Glaceau.)  Although both companies have used traditional television advertising, their campaigns have also relied heavily on the Internet. Vitaminwater’s “The Great Debate” campaign takes advantage of Facebook and provides a forum for people to opine. The Nike commercials featuring  Kobe and LeBron puppets living as roommates and ribbing each other have become viral hits.  Alone, I have no problem with either of the campaigns; in fact, I th0roughly enjoy them.

What worries me are a few incidents I noticed on ESPN and An innovator in the field of journalism and adapting to the online environment, ESPN has always done a great job of capitalizing on interactivity and user-generated content, and a Web site redesign earlier this year has further enhanced personalization and video capabilities. The redesign also addressed advertising by increasing ad space “above the scroll” and providing eight possible advertising packages for heavily trafficked pages.  

Vitaminwater must have gone with the “World Domination” package: two horizontal banner ads, two vertical ads and another ad just below the headlines. For me, the problem occurred when ESPN featured an article focusing on the Kobe and LeBron debate that, when selected, filled the home page’s new video viewer with a graphic eerily similar to the Vitaminwater ads.  The Web site looked like one massive ad.  

In the magazine industry, this is taboo. The American Society of Magazine Editors  calls the positioning of an ad on an opposing page of related editorial content an adjacency.  Now, I do not mean to imply that ESPN was paid to write the article or intended for the quasi-adjacency, but ESPN has also been here before with its advertiser-sponsored half-cover of ESPN The Magazine. 

Also, I am unsure how applicable ASME’s print guidelines can be for online content — as is ASME.  Although its digital guidelines call for a clear separation of editorial content and ad space (both Vitaminwater ads were clearly labeled) it also states that digital guidelines are “subject to change as the medium evolves.”

During the period the Vitaminwater ad ran on the Web site , I cringed when ESPN anchor Stuart Scott was moderating a halftime show during one of the games. In an attempt to segue into a conversation concerning Kobe and LeBron,  he mentioned that we know both players get their "vitamins."  Again, I am sure Scott was not paid and did not intentionally plug the same brand that was wallpapering ESPN's Web site, but this is essentially what happened.    

Nike’s comical Kobe and LeBron commercials have never really blurred any editorial ethical lines, but a recent video on the Web site bothered me. The short features both puppets from the Nike campaign sitting at a SportsCenter desk while singing the SportsCenter intro music. Although this was not a Nike ad – at least, it was not labeled as such - the puppets are highly recognizable and readily associated with the Nike brand.  It felt like product placement, especially when a Nike ad featuring both puppets followed the SportsCenter bit.

Now, I know most people think these issues are trivial, and in reality they are.  But they speak to a much larger dilemma.  As media outlets scramble to develop new business models and create profits online, it is paramount that the ethics of the profession make it through the digital revolution unscathed.  Most bloggers and “citizen journalists” don't have to worry about these distinctions; the industry does, and it must continue to be mindful of maintaining a proper balance.  Although ESPN is a journalistic institution and these incidents were most likely unintentional, they serve as an important reminder.   

The possible ethical dilemma nagged at me when I went to the driving range the other day.  Parched, I glanced over at the drink cooler and saw a multicolor chorus line of Vitaminwaters. Figuring Glaceau deserved my money if I was still thinking about Vitaminwater so much, I purchased one.  But then another thought occurred to me. Did Glaceau deserve my money or did Stuart Scott and ESPN?  That is dangerous territory. 


 Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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