Fox’s bloody t-shirt: Newtown images show risks of automated ads

Newspapers are careful about where their ads appear. They make sure, for instance, that flight specials don’t appear beside plane crash articles or that Taco Bell coupons aren’t printed beside food-poisoning stories. For online publishers, it’s much harder to screen inappropriate ads.

Fox News is a case in point. On Friday, the day of the Newtown massacre, Fox published an ad for a novelty T-shirt that appeared like this:

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 10.18.46 AM

Chicago lawyer Evan Brown noticed the ad late Friday afternoon. Appalled, Brown took a screenshot of the ad and published it here.

How did this happen?

Fox News did not respond to a request for comment, but the t-shirt company and advertising-industry people I spoke with provided enough information to piece together what happened. The unfortunate ad is not the result of Fox’s insensitivity or someone’s screw-up, but instead just reflects the reality of online advertising.

According to Mike Grouse of Bad Idea T-Shirts, the company has been running the bloody shirt ad for the last year. On Friday, it moved to take the ad down.”Yes, we removed the ads from Google upon becoming aware of the tragedy. We worked directly with our Google rep to expedite the process. We also blocked Fox News from receiving our ads,” he told us by email.

Google was involved in this case because it was the company that provided the back-end tools that let the t-shirt company buy the ads (other companies offer similar tools). In situations like this, Google works with both publishers and advertisers to help hit the kill switch on the technology that serves the ads.

“As soon as we recognized the sensitivity of the ad in this context, we stopped serving it,”  said a Google(s goog) spokesperson by email.

Fox and the t-shirt company weren’t the only ones to publish ill-advised ads on the day of the Newtown killings. As Fast Company reported, Facebook(s fb) ads on Friday invited people to try machine gun video games:

Facebook gun screenshot

Do publishers have any control anymore?

While newspapers make ad blunders from time to time, their publishing process often means they are in the driver’s seat in deciding whether ads appear in their papers, and if they do, on which pages. The situation is far different for online publishers — even rich, powerful ones like Fox or Facebook — which serve millions of diverse ads in real time.

It’s just publishers that can be stung by this — big brands that buy through ad-bidding exchanges (and many do) and whose ads wind up near unflattering content could also be dinged reputationally.

All of this is a function of how the online ad industry has evolved. Publishers used to simply sell ad space ahead of time, usually at a given dollar amount for every thousand times an ad was seen. But as ad inventory grew, publishers began turning to third-party services that that helped them fill unsold spots with low cost ads. The benefit was extra money; the downside was a loss of control over what appears on their site.

Dealing with third-party ad suppliers can be tricky because you’re effectively opening a portal to a flood of unknown content. This appears to be what happened in the case of Fox. If Fox had sold the ad space directly, it would have been better prepared to stop the ads from appearing; but since, the bloody t-shirt ads were just some of the millions of third-party ads flowing onto its sites, Fox’s ability to react was limited.

Publishers do have some control, of course. They can rely on tags to screen out certain categories like politics or pornography. But in unlucky cases like this one, it took hours for the diverse parts of the ad operation — the advertiser, the ad broker and the publisher — to respond (but as one source noted, news sites like Fox publish sensitive stories all the time so Fox may need to tighten its controls).

The bottom line

Publishers will have an easier time responding to a Fox-like situation if they have pre-sold their ad inventory, according to people I talked with. Nonetheless, they do not have technology to be pro-active about ad-screening — there are too many ads and it’s impossible to foresee every type of mismatch. And, unlike a newspaper, publishers and ad staff do not have a time delay to review how an ad will appear.

With the spread of new ad tools that make it easier for brands to bid on ad space in real time, mishaps like this could become more common. According to IDC, real-time ads will amount to $2 billion and 20 percent of all display ads in 2012.

If there is bright spot for nervous advertisers, it’s that online publishing is transient, and it’s easy to scrub mistakes. Unlike ill-advised newspaper ads, ads like the bloody t-shirt one will simply vanish — unless, of course, someone captures them with a screenshot.