When online contextual advertising gets it wrong

By Mark O’Neill

Contextual advertising is what drives profits at Google, Yahoo and all the other big internet companies. The ability by automated software to read your Gmail messages or scan what is being said on a webpage to decide what ads would be appropriate to display in order to satisfy your potential needs. So if you are on a webpage discussing toilet seats then you must be interested in toilet brush adverts right?

But these text-scanning programs are obviously fallible and they definately have limits. One of those limits is sometimes not being able to understand the context of a webpage or an email. So you end up getting adverts that veer from amusing to downright distasteful. On one side of the spectrum, you could get something amusing like entering the word “slave” into Google and the first result is an eBay-sponsored ad saying “looking for a slave? Buy one on eBay!”.

But then you start to get adverts like the Gmail advert that advertised dating lonely married cheating wives, just because someone had an email with the word “married” in it.

The latest one, which I have just pulled off the USA Today website concerns a story about a biologist who died of the plague. Guess what they are selling alongside?


A man dies a nasty death and USA Today decides to hawk a horror movie? If I was the man’s relative, I would be more than a bit hacked off.

Distasteful? I’ll let you decide on that one.

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