Media Perspective: Brands must cede control to lever the internet's potential

It makes for a very good headline: "Vodafone pulls advertising from Facebook." The publications carrying the story will be chuffed to report on an interesting tale - one of the world's biggest advertisers pulls its advertising from one of the world's hottest websites. What's more, Vodafone gets an easy chance to distance itself from the practices of the British National Party.

The story broke last week following a recent edition of Panorama, which showed blue-chip advertisers were appearing on less-than-acceptable websites. Britain's beloved John Lewis was featuring on the Pure Street Fights site, for instance.

But I'm not so sure abandoning Facebook is the solution to this problem. In fact, it shows a basic misunderstanding of what the internet is all about, and has a whiff of the "knee-jerk reaction" to it. The internet is not TV, and it's not print media. It's the Wild West. You can't control it like you can other media because its users supply the content and its sites are constantly evolving.

This feature goes a long way to explaining why the internet is so popular with today's younger consumers - its constant evolution also happens to be its greatest strength. Facebook is the best illustration of this right now. For example, the site saw a 22 per cent increase in users between April and May of this year, and many of these are university graduates with good income potential. So, suddenly, Vodafone doesn't appear to be quite so clever.

Take that to its widest dimension and then ask yourself can any brand afford not to use the internet? You either live with the associated risks, or remain elsewhere. It's also worth mentioning that things could get better. The online police have a near-impossible task, but there is something they can do. In the UK, the Internet Advertising Sales House - the trade body for internet sales houses - needs some support. Its members are forbidden from buying online inventory from non-members, but many do. Media agencies need to forbid their online sales houses from "chain buying". Now that the spotlight is on this subject, it's likely that advertisers will start demanding their media agencies only use IASH members. The words "member of IASH" on an online sales house's stationery needs to become essential for business.

Finally, I'd like to question the validity of banner ads on Facebook. I'm a Facebook addict, and I couldn't tell you who has been occupying the space to the left of my news feed. It could be the BNP, for all I care. But a good piece of commercial communication did creep into my Facebook experience recently: an option to hear Amy Winehouse's latest single appeared in my newslist. It was not intrusive and, I imagine quite effective in sparking trial. Now that's more like it.

- Ian Darby is away.