Target's monkey business reveals the trouble with targeted online ads

The Internet has definitely changed advertising forever -- and not necessarily for the better. The development of contextual and behavioral targeting for Internet ads has let advertisers match spots with web surfers' individual proclivities -- or with the pages they're looking at.

Unfortunately, results of such ad hoc matching can be disastrous. Witness the case of Target Corp. (TGT)'s recent online ad campaign for designer Paul Frank's popular sock-monkey dolls -- juxtaposed with a story about racially insensitive dolls holding toy monkeys.
Investigative website published an article this month about an offensive African-American doll selling at Costco (COST) stores in North Carolina. The dark-skinned doll clutched a small stuffed monkey and wore a hat emblazoned with "'Lil Monkey." Costco customers complained -- "monkey," of course, has long been is a racially charged term.

In the days before Internet advertising ran wild, that would have been the end of it. But with the Web came a flood of automated advertising technologies designed to blindly match ad inventory from buyers with suitable online pages supplied by publishers.

Imagine our surprise when's article "Monkey Business" was paired with an ad from for Paul Frank clothes bearing Frank's iconic sock monkey. One of the children in the ad even wears an Afro hairstyle. (The ad has since been replaced.)

In reality, Target has little control over where its ads land. The algorithms that match ads with Web pages haven't achieved human levels of cultural sensitivity. The Paul Frank combo could either have resulted from an ad being targeted to the words in the article, such as "monkey" and "doll," or to the habits of the Web surfer, a system called "behavioral targeting." In that type of system, someone who views a lot of children's clothing sites might be served a Paul Frank ad if the ad system's algorithms find that ad an appropriate match for the user.

But clearly, this isn't where Target would have chosen to place its ad. "There really are no safeguards out there to prevent an ad from showing up in a place that is contextually irrelevant or offensive," says Steve Latham, CEO of Houston-based online ad agency and consultancy Spur Interactive. "The Paul Frank monkey ads next to the story is an example of how bad the wrong ad in the wrong place at the wrong time can be."

Target can hardly be blamed for its misfortune in this case. (The company did not return a call for comment.) But until advertising algorithms can exercise their own judgment, the Web will be full of wacky and or insensitive advertising pairings that make marketers cringe and surfers seethe.
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