Tax Money Spent on Porn Site Ads? This Scandal Isn't as Sexy as You Think

Last Updated Nov 19, 2010 2:52 PM EST

Canadian politicians are shocked -- shocked! -- that Canada's National Film Board, its defense department and its postal service were spending up to $5,000 a day in taxpayer's money running Google (GOOG) ads on porn sites. They shouldn't be. This is a storm in a teacup.

The sites in question -- Photo.net, PhotoForum.ru and Hollywood Tuna -- aren't really porn sites. The first two are photo archive sites just like Flickr. The last one is a rather tasteless collection of photos of celebrities wearing bikinis and such.

The former both have some nudity, but it tends to be the "artistic" kind, such as this image (at right) by Lan Hao. The latter is porn largely in the sense that it fetishizes annoying celebrities.

Nonetheless the "controversy" is interesting because of what it says about online advertising:

  1. It proves Google's Adsense policy of not allowing its ads on adult-content sites is full of holes.
  2. Therefore, this could happen to your brand.
  3. In an automated, commodity media buying system with millions of buyers and sellers, it's not possible to vet every ad on every site, so the only real solution here is to accept the fact that army recruits, Canadian film fans, and stamp collectors -- i.e. ordinary consumers -- might also look at adult content occasionally.
Then there's the mystery of how this non-scandal was discovered by media company QMI Agency, a photography service run by Sun Media, which owns the Toronto Sun. You have to dig around a little on all three sites to find content you might object to -- most of the high-profile material on both sites comes from professional or semi-professional photographers and has no nudity whatsoever.

And the only way to know where these ads were running -- and to thereby become offended by them -- is if you yourself were already doing some one-handed surfing. Google doesn't generate an AdSense ad unless there's a consumer who actually clicks through to a page on which the Adsense code sits. The contradiction here is, Why would you be offended by these ads -- which are not for adult products -- if you were already enjoying some adult media? Exhibit A:

"Oh my goodness, they shouldn't be advertising there, that's for sure. On a website with questionable pictures that may even be child pornography? That's pretty outrageous," said the Canada Christian College's Charles McVety as he looked at the sites.
(There doesn't appear to be child porn on either site, if my five-minute skim of them is any guide.)

This contradiction cannot be resolved: The person being offended at the expenditure of tax money is the same person who triggered that expenditure by surfing a page on which Google AdSense runs. The only logical solution is to admit that adult content is media in the same way that everything else on the web is media. Thus advertisers should stop worrying about it (and easily offended consumers should stop looking at porn).

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