Targeted ads way off the mark

Written by Adrian Holovaty on June 30, 2003

I spent a long time today reading about last night's porch-collapse tragedy in Chicago. I grew up in the Chicago area and knew one of the people who died in the incident.

Reading the news was shocking enough, but it was especially disgusting to see how one news site presented inappropriate advertising with its coverage. After reading the Chicago Sun Times' account, I was shocked to see text ads for San Francisco Stairs and, two companies that construct porch-related materials:

Screenshot of ad links from

The ads appeared at the bottom of the story, as if to say, "Do you have a porch? Do you want to prevent this from happening to you? Well, check out our products." This is a sick, sick exploitation of a loss of human life.

And that wasn't all. I reloaded the page a few times and saw even more inappropriate ads -- links to Aluminum deck railings, Construction books/videos and a list of "Top 9 Must-Do Home Repairs for the Summer."

As Web advertising systems become sophisticated enough to allow for ultra-targeted advertising based on content, online ad programmers should keep in mind that targeted ads aren't always appropriate. Sometimes they're infuriating.


Posted by Terry Steichen on June 30, 2003, at 2:04 p.m.:

Yes, contextual ads placed in news pages are ridiculous. They can work just fine with feature pages, but news pages - no. In your example, it's hard to imagine that the adverisers wouldn't be hurt by the ad (rather than the other way around - which is what they thought they were paying for.)

Posted by Joshua Kaufman on June 30, 2003, at 3:20 p.m.:

Thanks for sharing this, Adrian. I hadn't thought of this until you described your experience. I urge online ad managers to do everything they can to make sure this type of thing doesn't happen in their publications. The consequences are too devastating to do nothing about it.

Posted by Richard Danielson on June 30, 2003, at 5:52 p.m.:

Ads on same site on obituary of conservationist and author of Audubon bird guides:

Pest Birds a Problem?

Complete Bird Control Product Line Call 800-503-5444 for Expert Help!

Ultimate in bird control

Remove pest pigeons & dirty birds Stainless steel spikes that work

Posted by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman on June 30, 2003, at 11:32 p.m.:

Adrian, the two solutions to a similar problem you've suggested before are 1) manually turning off certain ads on certain stories, and 2) improving software to check for improper matches. I agree with what you said at the time that the first suggestion is really only good as a "contingency plan," and smarter targeting software is necessary.

These contextual ads obviously work by calculating occurrence/frequency of keywords in the news copy. One technological improvement might be to create a "red flag" list of words -- like "killed", "die," "deaths", "fire", "emergency", "fatality", "hospital", "firefighters", "paramedics" -- whose occurrence/frequency in the news copy would replace contextual ads with innocent, unrelated ads. One could probably make a much more reliable version of this list by feeding 100 "tragedy" (porch collapse/fatal accident/plane crash/murder) articles and 100 other articles into a program designed to pick out words or phrases that occur very frequently in the sample of "tragedy" articles but almost never in the other articles.

Posted by Adrian on July 1, 2003, at 3:42 a.m.:

Richard: Thanks for pointing that out. Jeez... Now that I'm noticing them, I'm seeing those inappropriate text ads all over the place -- Blogger-powered weblogs and, etc.

Nathan: I like the idea of a red flag list for the obvious cases -- horrible tragedies, mostly -- but I'm not sure how well it would work with more subtle juxtapositions. Consider a interview with Bill Gates that I just read. Bill was talking about his AIDS charity work, and the related ads had to do with AIDS prevention and finding out whether you're infected. It's obvious that that's not as inappropriate as the Chicago porch-collapse example, but it's still an incorrect pairing that, more than anything else, decreases the credibility of those targeted text ads. I *do* believe text ads are effective when they're relevant, but the relevance is still so much of a gamble that the ads often turn out to be more an amusement than anything else.

The more I think about it, the more I believe human eyes are the best answer.

Posted by Chris on July 1, 2003, at 11:27 a.m.:

Why not have an option to display random, targeted, or no ads at all. For pages where targeted advertising could be inappropriate, either display random ads, or better, turn them off all together. Very simple to do, and would be very useful in cases like this.

Posted by Dave on July 1, 2003, at 5:47 p.m.:

One ad I will never forget is the Orbitz popup ad touting airfaires that I saw while going to after the planes hit on 9/11.

Posted by Peter on July 1, 2003, at 7:37 p.m.:

This approach is actually a partnership Google is exploring with news sites -- a way to take their keyword-relevant text ads and add them to news content. It's an experiment, and this is the kind of feedback that will guide whether the experiment continues. Beyond the sensitivity issues you raise, there are also significant business issues -- such as is it a good idea to have Google act as a sales agency that collects most of the revenues for those automated text ads vs. keeping all of the revenues from selling to local advertisers or national advertisers and controlling the context better. We'll see.

Posted by kpaul on July 1, 2003, at 11:08 p.m.:

Welcome to the *business* side of journalism...

Posted by Patrick on July 3, 2003, at 5:57 a.m.:

Hmmm. Saying that contextual ads are ridiculous seems a bit harsh. Dangerous? Yes. Potentially harmful to a brand? Absolutely!

For advertisers, who are paying so that others may use the site for free, it is on story pages that they receive the most exposure. Our story pages are, by far, the longest viewed. And since click-thrus are no longer considered advertising currency but the ability to remain front of mind is, the conextual ads on story pages is a big want from internet saavy advertisers.

How bad can it go? One of our competitors had a United Airlines campaign running on 9/11 in the pop up that displayed the video of the second plane hitting tower #1. In another instance, our site had an ad for Viagra on a story page recounting a rape case. Not good.

How can this be remedied? Most advanced ad serving engines have the capability to serve on keyword phrases. We are working on algorithms to determine what phrases are and are not appropriate for the serving of ads. Using this, when an advertiser is added to the system, they are placed in a advertising 'group', where certain phrases are applicable to them and others are not. As the stories are added to the system, ad serving phrases are built (or not built) depending on the text in the story copy. These ad phrases are saved to the database for later inclusion in the ad tags that make up the ad call.

Example: use UA and 9/11. UA would be placed in an advertising group for airlines. This group could potentially have keywords such as vacation, disney world, beaches, tanning, snow boarding. So the UA ads would serve when these keywords appear in the ad call. Next, when the story is entered into the editorial system, this is where the fun begins. One way we are looking at doing this is taking all the words that connote anything bad that can happen to human beings (ie. died, killed, raped, disease, epidemic) and if this is paired with other words in the story like "...the passengers on flight 111 were on their way back from vacation." Then the keword in that story to target UA (the word "vacation") would not be added. and the ad would never serve. Its a bit complicated and the logistics are staggering. Its the type of task that requires a slow building of a "dictionary" with the knowledge that some mistakes will be made along the way.

Posted by Joel Abrams on July 7, 2003, at 9:46 p.m.:

Another fun example, on Editor & Publisher today, a column criticizing NYT reporting on WMD had two Google contextual ads at lower-left urging me to subscribe to the Times.

Posted by Wilson Miner on July 15, 2003, at 1:20 a.m.:

I seem to remember The New York Times had a story a while back about the illegal immigrants that were found dead in a truck, and there was an ad in the sidebar for a toy truck gift with the Times logo on it. What happens when technology sneaks back up around to smack you in the ass.

Posted by Michael on August 23, 2003, at 10:53 p.m.:

Overture partners with

Quigo uses human editors to avoid placing inappropriate ads nearby content that contains subjects such as death, war, terrorism, floods, etc.

Quigo does not use fully automated solutions for news pages.

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