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Advertising Targeting Gone Wrong – Tragically Wrong

Today I was sitting in the Chicago O’Hare Airport grabbing a quick bite in between connections when the news broke across the many TV screens in the terminal that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC had an incident, a man with a gun, a shooting, and possibly someone or many were killed. At that time, we didn’t know much. The frequent challenge of news organizations to be first conflicted with the ability to accurately report on what has actually happened. At this moment leaving, in my immediate midst, hundreds of connecting, arriving, and departing travelers with little more than fright and speculation as to what might have just occurred.

As a concerned citizen with wifi access, I whipped out my laptop and decided to see if there was more online. I admit my first stop was the same news outlet fumbling on TV, CNN.

Although I think I had prepared myself for no additional information or some scattered citizen journalism at best, what I didn’t expect was this: advertising with messages like “Don’t wait until it’s too late.” Or images with coffins or crying children at graves. Really? This can’t be the fruits of great ad technology promising to deliver customers at the right place at the right time, can it?

Before I go any further, here are the ads from AccuQuote on CNN. By the way, I refreshed this page and continuously saw additional adaptations of these ads. Obviously targeted and reprehensible.

click to enlarge

I have worked most of my adult life in the ad business in one form or another. This is not the first misplaced advertisement you or I have probably seen, but it is an issue that must be addressed now, especially since similar problems were happening twelve years ago.

In 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, I was on vacation. I first saw the news in a restaurant. It was devastating to many and a news story that most of the world watched for weeks—even months—to come. A few days later when I returned to work and sat down at

my computer, I brought up my Web browser. I traveled to a (not to be named) Web site whose lead story was of Princess Diana’s funeral with a photo of her casket adorned with flowers and the simple card from her sons that said “Mom.” It was an image that many can still remember today. However, when I arrived at that Web page I heard what I would soon discover to be an ad without user-initiated sound. It was a female child’s voice knocking on a hard surface saying “let me in, let me in.” Just below the fold, or where you can scroll down with your browser to view what was initially out of sight, I discovered an advertisement of a little girl knocking at the computer screen—my computer screen—saying those very words. Without this image, as I’m sure you’ve already put together, it sounded like Princess Diana was knocking on her coffin and asking to be let in. Or in my mind, let out.

In this case, I happened to know the agency that handled this advertiser and made a phone call to a friend and the ad was removed very quickly. This ad in 1997 was what ad folk call a premium placement—the home page of a prominent news site—with no targeting at the time. Today we have many more tools at hand and expect more than what 1997 Web advertising had to offer. For instance, one might exclude a page that a news provider tags “Breaking News.” Just a thought.

We need to do better no matter where we sit at the table. This is disheartening and tragically wrong. I don’t believe AccuQuote or CNN or whoever handles their ad targeting intended this result, but I hope it serves as an example for all of us to be conscience with our incredible technical prowess and a reminder of how sensitivity is not always built in.