Steve Irwin’s Death : Contextual Advertising Gone Bad

Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter died the other day. News channels covered the story and, CNN, in particular didn’t show any tact in covering his death:

Irwin died Monday morning after being attacked by a stingray while shooting a TV program off Australia’s north coast.

shmula, context insensitive

Notice the ad to the right — yeah, the one about life insurance on a story about Steve Irwin’s death. Tactful, heh, mate? Pretty bad, I think.

Natural Langugage Processing & Disambiguation

In graduate school, I studied NLP and tried to tackle the problem of how to teach a machine to learn and understand such things as irony, word-sense disambiguation, and metaphor. I failed miserably. The approach that I took was the machine learning, neural-net approach. I tested a large data set, with an even larger training set of exemplars (sentences) using the various senses of words that I hand-picked from the WordNet database. For example, the word “bank” has 10 senses as a noun and 8 senses as a verb. How can you tell teach a machine the difference between “bank” of a river versus “bank” as a financial institution? An NLP approach is to search for (n-words left) and (n-words right) to search for context. But, this approach isn’t sensitive to human concerns. NLP is very, very difficult to do well. In my view, it is one of the most interesting and difficult areas of theoretical computer science.

The Ad-Rendering Insensitive Machine

Tactfullness and human decency aside, I wonder what the CTR of that ad is. Technically, it is working — it is being rendered in the right context; but, it’s just insensitive and inhumane to render it in such a context. I bet the CTR is good, given the right context, which creates a delicate balancing act for media companies between relevancy and human sensitivity.

Trust, Attention, and Relevancy is the mantra in the eyeball age. From what I can tell, CNN satisfies all three, hence a broad and deep online readership. But, in this instance, it is acting inhumanely and portrays CNN as one big, insensitive blunder.

Note: I’ve placed 2 ads on this post — I wonder what Yahoo will render given the context of death, life insurance, etc.


  1. andrew says

    I don’t see how this can be classified as ‘insensitive’. Personally, I would find it much more disturbing to see an ad for life insurance popping up in a completely unrelated context. The reporting on Irwin’s death is a joke. This is not a tragedy for anyone outside of his immediate family. He died like he lived, needlessly irritating very dangerous animals for the amusement of himself and others.

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