News that media agency MindShare suspended advertising from clients including Unilever's Lynx on Dennis Publishing's digital lads' mag Monkey, due to the title's explicit content, raises some important considerations for advertisers.
The title has been keen to promote its debut ABCe of 209,612, but critics claim its growth has been driven by risque content, an accusation that Dennis refutes. A number of senior agency figures had already questioned Monkey's 'readers' wives'-style offering, but the tipping point for MindShare proved to be a link to a sex video featuring glamour model Jordan.
This incident was the result of a flawed editorial decision, but just weeks earlier rival publisher Emap had had to remove an explicit image from the user-generated content section of its Zoo website, demonstrating how difficult it is to police such content.
Ultimately, advertisers buy into an environment, says Paul Thomas, managing partner at MindShare, and media owners need to take a long-term view. 'Advertisers don't want to be associated with this type of content, regardless of whether it drives traffic,' he adds. 'It doesn't make business sense and it will not drive advertising revenues.'
While user-generated content and interactivity has been heralded as the future for both media owners and advertisers, it is impossible to imagine any mainstream brands wanting to be associated with hardcore pornography.
But Ben Raworth, Monkey's new product development director, is philosophical about the Jordan incident. 'It was an editorial choice to link to that content and on reflection its something we wouldn't do again,' he says.
Raworth is keen to emphasise that of the 46 pages in each issue of Monkey, only eight are accounted for by content related to women. 'The old comedy clips, entertainment, games and video sections get the most hits,' he adds.
However, with the circulations of traditional lads' monthlies such as FHM and Loaded, in freefall, the pressure for them, either in their magazine format or digital extensions, to stave off online competition is immense.
The fact that Dennis' server almost crashed because so many people tried to access the link to Jordan's sex video illustrates the temptation that exists for publishers to rely on explicit or shocking content. MindShare's Thomas believes this presents a dilemma for brands. 'If a brand is associated with certain types of user-generated content, it puts brand equity at risk,' he says. 'But there is also an element of free speech that has to preserved, particularly within the realms of user-generated content.'
One insider describes publishers' attitudes to user-generated content as akin to playing Russian roulette, with campaigners claiming that pictures of underage girls can easily be posted on the websites of leading publishers.
Dr Sasha Rakoff, director of Object, which campaigns against the presentation of women as sex objects to sell magazines, says there is little regulation of this type of content. 'It is down to market pressure; every week they feel they have to increase the nipple count and if you object to it, you are marked out as a prude,' she says.
One senior press director argues that explicit content has long been part of the media mix and is not the result of the advent of user-generated content. 'The publishers push their magazines as premium lifestyle offerings, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out what really sells them,' he says, citing the 'porn disguised as documentary' shows on Channel 4 and Five as further examples.
Despite this view, there is evidence that user-generated content raises some murky issues. This month, the raft of stories about escalating gang violence in London has been illustrated with images from sites such as YouTube, while a video showing a boy with a bloodied mouth being slapped and forced to strip by a South London gang was recently removed from MySpace.
Mark Creighton, managing director of digital communications agency i-level, points out that because user-generated content is fluid, it is vital for media owners and agencies to police it. 'We have strict terms and conditions about the content and age groups we are targeting, particularly if we use sites such as MySpace and YouTube,' he says.
Danny Dagan, head of online at The Sun, insists that users and advertisers are able to differentiate between the brand and user-generated content. 'Three years ago advertisers would never have used MySpace, but now they flock to it, despite the fact that a lot of the content is not for the faint-hearted,' he says.
According to Dagan, both The Times and The Sun feel strongly that users should be allowed to express themselves via the papers' online presences. 'At The Sun we have 24-hour moderators who remove content if necessary,' he says.
This last comment hints at the complicated web of legal issues that media owners face. Nick Johnston, head of advertising and sponsorship law at Osborne Clarke, warns that if a brand directs traffic to libellous content, it is arguably engaging in further publication of it. 'It hasn't been tested in the courts yet, but it's a key area for media owners to watch,' he says.
The rise of internet stalking and, in particular, the practice of jilted lovers posting explicit pictures of their former partners on the web is another phenomenon to which publishers and brands will have to pay close attention.
One solution is simply for brands to be more discerning, according to one senior marketer. 'Consumers are increasingly media-savvy and cynical about big brands,' she says. 'For a brand such as Unilever, which has had such success with its Dove 'Real Women' campaign, being linked to such unsavoury sexist content could present a risk.'
Monkey's Raworth remains staunch in his defence of its content strategy. 'What we are doing has to be slightly edgy, he says. 'We don't want to be seen to be doing just what the traditional publishers are doing online, we want to go further.' It remains to be seen whether advertisers will follow.