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During a recent email exchange with a friend, this friend made a potentially offensive and utterly twisted joke about handing out chocolate-covered razor blades for Halloween (I, of course, would never condone such a thing! A lot of kids are allergic to chocolate!).


While I admit that I was amused on some depraved level (though I did not LOL), I also experienced a moment of paranoia in which I thought, “Hmm, perhaps this isn’t the kind of joke that is wise to make over email. It could lend itself to misunderstanding.” Conspiracy theorist that I am, I envisioned some sort of FBI file being opened on both of us based on this entirely innocuous comment; I imagined being whisked away to prison, left to rot away due to someone else’s tasteless joke. I nevertheless emailed him back, even as I waited for the heavy thud of the other shoe which, I presumed, would be the tyrannical jackboot of the Internet Thought Police.


And indeed, something happened – but not at all what I had expected. I’m not sure what I would call the freakish other shoe that did drop – all I can say is that it didn’t match.

Literally within seconds, ads for Gillette razor blades – and, milliseconds after that, for various chocolate products—appeared on the right-hand side of my Gmail inbox (my friend’s as well, as he confirmed). Razor blades and chocolate! It was as though some sort of demented Big Brother had read my most inappropriate conversation and, rather than incarcerating me without a fair trial like Big Brother is supposed to do, it was now attempting to facilitate this wickedness though advertising! It was as though some advertiser or affiliate or whatever it was had decided, If they’re going to hand out chocolate-covered razor blades, let it to be our razor blades! Our chocolate!


This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed something wrong with these ads. I’d recently switched to Gmail from Hotmail, which had been my email residence for over a decade. I tend to embrace change at such time as I am forced into it kicking and screaming. That was the case here. I reluctantly gave up my Hotmail address only after it had spammed my entire address book with horribly-worded ads for shady electronic products (“Hope you have a good mood shopping in their company” is just one example of the resplendent prose sent out under my name). I would add, shamefully, that I allowed this to happen not once but twice before I finally relinquished my Hotmail account for good.


The solution, according to virtually all of my friends, was Gmail. It seems that this Google-owned email provider, which only recently outgrew its ‘beta’ status, seems to have a certain trendy appeal over many of the old-school email providers. Although it currently ranks third in overall popularity behind Hotmail and Yahoo, it seems to have a very strong cult following among practically everyone I know.


When this whole Hotmail crisis occurred, a few of my friends actually scoffed and said things like I can’t believe you had Hotmail for so long, as if I’d been going around with a beeper instead of a cell phone, or listening to music on cassettes. In this way, I realized that there is, as in most areas of life, a weird social stratification system of email providers. Hotmail, though it still technically dominates the field, is no longer cool.


I’ve been on Gmail for about three months now, and for the most part it’s not so different from Hotmail. I have to admit that I mostly don’t love the ways in which it does differ (except for the whole not-spamming-people part. That I like). I could do without those visible panes, or whatever they’re called, where you can see into your emails like an X-ray machine. I wish it didn’t always urge me to “invite people to join Gmail” like a proselytizing religion. But mostly, it’s fine, and it’s serving me well.


But those ads! The first time one of them appeared, seeming to creepily make reference to the content of my email, I was genuinely freaked out. I think I first realized it when I was emailing with one friend who has been writing a book about her days as a fashion model. Suddenly, I was assailed with ads inviting me to “become a model!” and enroll in various highly questionable modeling schools. As a 30-something (many ‘somethings’, actually) who is neither six feet tall nor do I weigh in at 90 pounds, I got more than a few laughs out of this.


While emailing with another friend, who’s pregnant, I receive ads for a “$149 Fetal Doppler” and “cord blood banking (whatever that is).” With my husband, who edits a trade magazine about ophthalmology, there are ads about ocular surgery and eye diseases (he doesn’t even have to mention these topics; his email masthead is enough to do the trick every time).


I realized quickly enough that there obviously wasn’t a person actually reading these emails; such a violation would likely cause a massive uproar among privacy-loving types. But obviously, something was going on; I couldn’t email one sentence without its keywords being extracted and harvested into advertising copy.


So after the razors-and-chocolate incident, I decided to look into this a bit. It was easy enough; all I had to do was click on a link at the bottom of the ad section called “about these links.” Here, it was explained to me that these “sidebar links”, as they are called, are part of a “completely automated process to provide useful information and relevant ads in the sidebar of your Gmail pages.” The explanation goes on to say that “No humans will read the content of your email in order to target such advertisements or related information. Because the ads and related pages are matched to information that is of interest to you, we hope you’ll find them relevant and useful.”


Also provided in this section is a lovely voice-over (always nice to encounter suddenly while at work) explaining that “On Gmail, you’ll never see pop-ups or untargeted banner ads.” So true – instead, we get to feel personally targeted by the bizarre misinterpretations of a “non-human”. I find that the effect of this combination – of being personally marketed to by a non-person, is both chilling and hilarious. When I facetiously call someone a “sick puppy”, I instantaneously receive an ad for Australian Labradoodles. Random words are plucked out of context, and taken at bizarre face value. It’s like an ad agency being run by Forrest Gump.


Of course, this approach is nothing new – the “keyword ad” industry capitalizes on virtually every letter and click made by a computer user. There is “pay-per-click”, “cost per action”, Search Engine Optimization, old-fashioned pop-ups, and various other aggressive methods designed to force ads in front of a user’s face.


According to a Wikipedia entry about keyword advertising, the most well-known form of keyword advertising is Google AdWords. In this advertising method, according to Wikipedia, “Google displays search ads specifically targeted to the word(s) typed into a search box. These keyword targeted ads also appear on content sites based on Google’s system’s interpretation of the subject matter on each page of the site.”


I then considered changing my Gmail settings in order to no longer see the ads, but guess what? I couldn’t!  “Gmail users can’t opt out of receiving ads because these sponsored links help Google support the cost of providing Gmail for free to our users,” the informational section states. OK, so much for that idea.


Apparently, the advertising approach used in the Gmail sidebar links is called “contextual advertising”, and uses an automated robot system to choose and display the ads. This type of advertising has been used for some time on Web sites and search engines. Apparently, the robot or ‘web crawler’ scans the site for keywords, and places ads on the page based on the presumed content of the site. Google apparently even has a name for its robot Web crawler, “Mediabot”.


Not surprisingly, robot advertising turns out to be a rather imprecise science. The automatons in question lack the skills of discernment needed to consistently put their contextual advertising in the proper context. The results of this have ranged from hilarious to potentially offensive. The Web site Urlesque has compiled a list of some of the most disastrously ineffective efforts by advertising robots; additional can be easily found through a random search. 


There’s an article about coffee triggering a first heart attack, accompanied by a brilliantly placed ad for Folger’s coffee. A Google search regarding meth crime in Las Vegas prompted the advertising bot to post an ad which asks, “Looking for Vegas Meth?” One of the more overtly inappropriate ones I found was a CNN article about the famous case of brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo, inexplicably matched with an ad featuring a photo of Albert Einstein and the taunt “Hey, genius! What’s your I.Q.?” This same question might reasonably be asked of the robot in charge of this particular job. Don Draper, this ad robot ain’t.


But for some reason, the ads produced from my very own email exchanges strike me as taking the stupidity to whole new depths. Perhaps this is because when a person actually searches a word or phrase, or reads an article on a Web site, there is an implied level of interest in learning about this topic, from a point of curiosity if not commercialism. Whereas if I call someone a “sick puppy” over email, this really doesn’t imply—not on any level—that I’m shopping for an Australian Labradoodle.  Nor does an absurd little throwaway joke about razor-bladed Halloween candy mean that I’m ready to shop for a Gillette & Godiva recipe.


The reality is, robot advertising is probably just the latest type of marketing for people to get annoyed about. Human beings, it seems, have always complained about advertising, just as we’ve always tolerated it. There’s something fundamentally insulting and intrusive about knowing that some corporate entity is trying to use whatever they know about us to talk us into buying something. It has always been, I would dare say, a troubled relationship.


However, the ads we’re used to, the ones we see on TV and in magazines or the radio, are forced to extrapolate a profile of us based on general demographic information; on generalizations.Yet these insidious computer ads attempt to tailor their sales pitches based on us, personally; on documented online activity. Yet it’s only half-personal – sure, it’s an ongoing log of our individual choices of nouns and verbs, but it’s generated by a brainless, insensate robot. So, it’s about us, but it’s not.


The very thing that makes contextual advertising tolerable – the fact that it’s not another human being spying on us – is also what makes it incredibly stupid. I can’t say I know too many people who have sprung for a fetal doppler because they were conversing with a pregnant friend, or have purchased a Labradoodle simply because they figuratively used the word ‘puppy’ in an email. Honestly, I would like to see the numbers on the effectiveness of this type of advertising; I would like to meet the person who can be persuaded in this manner.


So it seems that the internet has made advertising even stupider, much as it has done with everything else. In the article Advertising Success through Dumbing Down (Hellium.com), writer Leigh Goessl states, “The fact is many potential customers don’t like to watch ads in today’s world. In the age of TiVo, podcasting, Twitter, text messaging and chat lingo/slang, it has become pretty clear people don’t want to waste time wading through lots of commercials, words or text. Even in Internet writing, people tend to skim and only hone in on the information they want to read.”


Perhaps it’s this moment-to-moment, attention-deficit attitude that drives contextual advertising; it would seem to make sense that a person’s needs can be identified and immediately marketed to by noting their most recent search term, the most prominent words in the email they just sent. No word should be left unexploited, because in the very next second, the person may well have moved on, and the opportunity will have been lost. Soon, I imagine, keyword advertising robots will attempt to sell people their own names (talk about keywords!). And who knows? Maybe someone will be dumb enough to buy it.


Not me, though. For me, contextual ads are now purely a source of humor. I look to my Gmail sidebar links to amuse me; I even occasionally send out some nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness screeds just to see how the stupid, clueless little robot will attempt to spin them. The results are almost invariably hilarious. I just sit here with my new Australian Labradoodle, and we laugh and laugh.


Photo (partial) from ManorBorn.biz

Australian Labradoodle Photo (partial) from ManorBorn.biz


Jennifer Byrne does not actively seek out pop culture, but instead absorbs it involuntarily, as if through a semipermeable membrane (actually, she gets it from her computer and TV). In Pop Osmosis she explores her own deeply conflicted reactions to will explore my own deeply conflicted reactions to many high and low pop culture phenomena to which she is exposed, from the genuinely intriguing to the stuff that might involve accessory dogs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The National Ledger, and in various clever emails.


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