Perils of context-based advertising

I’ll never forget the day several years ago when Google AdSense first appeared on nzherald.co.nz.

One of our news stories that day was about a near-fatal shark attack in Australia. As soon as we switched on AdSense, pages carrying the shark attack story sprouted ads for cage-diving operators offering “swim with the sharks” experiences. If memory serves, we asked Google to bar those ads for a few days, and hoped we hadn’t offended too many readers.

You’ve probably seen or heard about other examples of bizarre and inappropriate context-based advertising.

One recent case involves the British website GoneTooSoon.co.uk, where people post condolence messages. Everything was going fine, until the webmaster decided he needed to earn some money and installed AdSense.

The tribute page for someone killed in a motorcycle accident began carrying ads for motorcycles. Even more offensive was an ad spotted by a user of the site, who wrote:

“Can you really trust a site which posts an advert of [the murderer] Ian Huntley’s biography – not only on my beautiful friend Ian’s site, but on a website that also has a memorial for [Huntley’s victims] Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman?”

Outraged, visitors to the site began removing their tributes and vowing never to return.

Following the uproar, the ads were removed. The site is soliciting donations to keep it free to access.