Opinion: Perspective - Internet advertising must beware of cheap image

The digital flags are out. In America, Reckitt-Benckiser has hacked $20 million from its TV advertising budget to invest in a new online video ad strategy.

It's big news over there. From 1 April (and no, this wasn't one of those awfully boring April Fool stories conceived by brands that have no discernible humour the other 364 days of the year), Reckitt is ploughing 5 per cent of its £475 million advertising budget into video ad networks.

The man in charge, Marc Fonzetti, says: "We've seen a fundamental shift in consumer consumption and media habits migrating over to digital video." And although he says YouTube has been the catalyst, Reckitt is really mostly interested in professional content.

As you can imagine, the Reckitt news has been greeted by people who like to proclaim the death of traditional media as a sign of the imminent death of traditional media. It's a sign, they say, of a fundamental shift in media dynamics: the death of mass media as we create our own digital media diets tailored to our own interests and consumed to our own schedule.

Hmm. Well, there's no doubt that a wind is blowing that way, but let's not get over-excited. Reckitt's decision to raise its online spend is surely as much a cost-cutting strategy as it is a thoughtful response to the new media philosophy.

Reckitt's digital media agency, Media Contacts, admits as much. CPM is the driving factor, they say; the strategy is about delivering impressions more efficiently than television: cheaper and more targeted.

This economic preoccupation is nothing to be ashamed of, of course. Quite the opposite, now more than ever, but only as long as effectiveness is not compromised. For its part, Reckitt is certainly making sure that it measures the effect rigorously, combining TV GRPs with the web and layering in interactive measures such as links to microsites and online coupons. Results from this tracking will then be laid over data from Nielsen's Homescan shopping panel to make sure the campaign is as accountable as possible. All thoroughly sensible.

Over here in the UK, Kellogg was doing its bit to give the death-of-TV brigade some fresh ammunition. Again (and despite the fact that television is currently a bargain buy), cost also seems to be a driver. Kellogg has announced that it will launch its latest cereal, Nature's Pleasure, without any television support. It's the first time that the company has turned its back on television for such a launch, and again the news is being hailed as evidence of a fundamental change, away from television.

Add in new figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau that show the web now accounts for just shy of 20 per cent of all (display plus classified) advertising revenue, and the case rests. Online adspend topped £3.35 billion last year and online display was the only display advertising sector to rise, up by 7.7 per cent.

Which all sounds like extremely positive news for online content providers. Except that it's one thing being considered the medium of accountability, but quite another being considered the medium for cheap advertising. Reckitt apparently has extracted CPMs "well into the single digits" in return for its increased investment in the medium, the sort of negotiating tactics that some website owners are clear could be the death of some sites.

Isn't it time for the internet industry to curb its triumphalism every time a big advertiser shifts significant spend online? Surely the focus now must be on making a greater case for the internet as a medium of value plus accountability, not just cheap eyeballs.

And the quality of the content that's being bought, not just the cost, needs to be enshrined in the equation if advertisers are to make sure that shifting money online doesn't end up undermining the brand values they spend the rest of their marketing budgets building up.