No to Web ads

Thomas R. Temin

I once worked for an old-fashioned but successful publisher who loved the saying, 'Nothing happens until someone sells something.' To sell something, his argument continued, you have to advertise it.

Ours has become an advertisement-soaked society. Spectacles like the Olympics or professional sports barely have enough program content to paper over the sponsored messages. Tiger Woods is a walking Nike billboard.

Government has always been in the ad sales business to some extent. For decades, municipal subways and buses have carried ads. And today, the naming rights to stadiums built with public funds are routinely auctioned to the highest bidder. Public schools host Coke and Pepsi machines festooned with garish, backlit ads.

As GCN/State & Local's Wilson P. Dizard III reports in this issue, a growing number of states are selling advertising on their Web sites. So far, the revenues are paltry.

But whether the ad revenue is large or small, is it the right thing to do? Ads on a government site can send all sorts of subtle signals about the site, none of them useful.

In publishing, when a particular proposal is not a clear ethics violation but still doesn't feel right, editors ask whether the idea passes the so-called smell test. I don't think ad-plastered government Web sites pass the smell test.

Ads detract from the dignity of government sites. They signal'rightly or wrongly'that public agencies don't have the resources, even with the taxes citizens pay, to mount a decent Web presence. They remove yet another public space where people can be free from commercial messages.

Affinity ads convey potentially the worst unspoken message. Tax preparation service ads on tax administration sites or auto insurers near registration renewal sites can imply endorsement or favoritism, even when it doesn't exist.

I question neither the ethics nor motives of well-intentioned officials who choose to post ads. I do, however, urge them to revisit their decisions and ask themselves if the revenue is worth it.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: [email protected]


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