Like many newspapers in recent years, The Register-Guard relies on digital advertising to shore up flagging print ad revenues.
But that often means outsourcing the ad selection to algorithmically driven servers that try to match ads to readers — sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
Monday afternoon, Oct. 1, a full-color, full-frontal nude photograph of five adolescent girls standing in a row appeared for some readers right at the top of the RG‘s home page. This was, let’s say, not the family-friendly newspaper’s usual fare.
Placed there by a service called Criteo, the ad showed a 2007 photo by controversial art photographer Jock Sturges. It was being auctioned, according to the ad, by Heritage Auctions, with an opening bid of $500 and an estimated value of $1,000 to $2,000. (Click here to see the auction listing with the full photo reproduced, though only if you promise you’re over 18 and you’re looking solely for artistic reasons.)
Sturges has drawn numerous legal threats for his work. His San Francisco studio was raided by the FBI in 1990, though a grand jury refused to indict him. In 1998 the states of Arkansas and Louisiana tried unsuccessfully to have his work deemed child pornography.
His photos of children appear on the covers of several books, including Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s first novel, Ute av verden.
We’ve reached out to RG editor Alison Bath and publisher Shanna Cannon for comment but did not get an immediate response. We’ll update when we hear anything.
Update 10 am Oct. 2: RG Publisher Shanna Cannon says by phone this morning that the ad for the Sturges photo wasn’t served up by the newspaper’s ad network. “That did not run on our site yesterday,” she insists, and suggests the problem could have originated with a computer virus on EW‘s computers. Despite the content of the photo, the fact that the ad comes from a well established auction house weighs against malware. We’re checking.
Update 4:30 pm Oct. 2: Publisher Cannon told EW in a telephone call that she had reported the offending ad to the FBI and to Eugene police. Meanwhile, EW‘s tech guy says our system hasn’t been compromised by malware of any kind.
Update Oct. 7: In an editorial this morning, The Register-Guard has apologized to readers and is now taking responsibility for allowing the ad to run, as opposed to blaming EW for having a computer virus.
This odd incident shines a bright light on one of the darker truths of digital advertising: Once you outsource ad placement to Google and the lesser-known firms like Criteo, you’ve given up control of what runs on your pages.