So long, Google AdSense … and other thoughts about objectionable advertising

It’s not likely you noticed it, but on Oct. 1 Perfect Duluth Day stopped mixing in Google-generated advertisements with the other ads that rotate over there on the right side of the page. It’s also not likely you care why, but we will explain nonetheless.

Over the past three-and-a-half years we have operated the advertising space on PDD like this: In the right column we rotate about a dozen ads in five positions. Those are ads that have been arranged through our relationships with local businesses. At the bottom, in position six, was always an ad that came through Google AdSense, a program that, as Google puts it, “empowers online publishers to earn revenue by displaying relevant ads on a wide variety of online content.”

One thing that always bothered us about AdSense is that it would occasionally display animated ads, which are annoying. It didn’t happen too often, though, so we decided we could live with it.

Last month, however, we noticed an ad came up for a dating service specifically geared to hooking men up with “Japanese singles.” We felt it was pretty unlikely that this is a reputable business (and we’re not sure how it would even be possible that it could be) so we decided to reconsider whether the money we were getting from AdSense was worth the toll it might take on our souls. And our ultimate conclusion was that it was not.

You might wonder what exactly PDD’s philosophy or principles are with regard to the advertisements it accepts. Well, not only have we not shared that with readers before, we’ve never really talked about it ourselves — at least not in great detail — but we do have a vague policy that we reserve the right to reject any advertisement. (In the case of AdSense, we didn’t have the option to reject which ads it stuck us with, so we had to choose to reject the whole package.)

In general, we dislike the notion of refusing to run certain ads — and it’s not because we lose money when we refuse ads, because I would speculate that running sketchy ads would cost us more money than we’d make, in terms of people losing respect for PDD and becoming disenfranchised with it. We dislike refusing ads because it feels like we are making decisions for our readers or acting like moral police. Also, by denying certain ads we create more of a perception that we endorse all the opinions in the advertisements that do run.

The fact is, in most cases we feel our advertisers run fantastic businesses and we are proud to be associated with them — but, for example, when you see a political ad on PDD it certainly doesn’t mean we got together and decided we’re all voting for that person. It just means we took some money so that candidate could promote his or her campaign. We have never rejected a political ad, although it’s certainly conceivable that we might in the future … you know, if someone runs on a “Kill Babies and Eat Them” platform.

So we kind of define our principles on advertising as we go along here at PDD. At this point, the only ad we have rejected that came from a local interest and not Google AdSense was for synthetic marijuana. (No, it wasn’t the Last Place on Earth, it was a guy who said he was going to do home deliveries of a product called “2012.”) This was two years ago and synthetic drugs were kind of a new thing. We were leaning toward accepting the ad, but ultimately decided it didn’t sound like a safe product.

Basically, if someone wants to promote something that seems connected to human trafficking, involves encouraging the consumption of dangerous chemicals or just stinks like a scam, we’re likely to not allow that to happen here. That’s about where we stand at the moment.

Anyway, I just thought I’d air out PDD’s ethical dilemmas for you all, so you can decide how much you love or hate us based on our vague moral stands. I apologize in advance for bringing up advertising at all. We try as hard as we can to keep it over there in the right column where it belongs.



about 10 years ago

Actually, that's really interesting and I'm glad you posted it.  Not knowing any of you personally, you sure seem to me like extremely thoughtful and ethical people.  So I hope you make tons of ad money that can continue to fund PDD, a great asset to our city!

Thank you and keep up the great work.


about 10 years ago

Google, generally speaking, creeps me out.

What creeps me out more is the expression on the face of the guy in the DSSO ad.  


about 10 years ago

Thank you for taking the time to explain PDD's decision. One of the reasons I continue to peruse this site is due to the broad opinions of the posts and contributors.

Although I have been inclined to click on a few PDD ads over the years, I can honestly say that  I am not aware that they are there - I'm drawn to the catchy lines of each post.

I don't think I am alone in the way I continually train my eyes to focus on the content and avoid the ad - especially on TV and internet.  

Just keep plugging along with your vague philosophy regarding ads. It's working and I appreciate it! 


about 10 years ago

Agreed on the DSSO ad - that guy is intense. 

Now that I see the ads and know they're not generated from Google, I have to say, I'm impressed PDD! You're getting some high-profile local advertisers up there.

Just wondering, have you thought more about making tiny ad space available for those with limited budgets? Maybe two 125x125 blocks at the bottom of the list, could be restricted to non-profits and the like.


about 10 years ago

And yes, disclaimer, I will selfishly admit that I have personal interest in the tiny ads, as I'd like to advertise my Halloween site, but considering that it earns me exactly $0.00 in revenue means the large ads are way out of my "budget."


about 10 years ago

"Just wondering, have you thought more about making tiny ad space available for those with limited budgets? Maybe two 125x125 blocks at the bottom of the list, could be restricted to non-profits and the like."
Love this idea. Love it.

Paul Lundgren

about 10 years ago

There are a number of problems with 125x125 ads. The first is that we often have advertisers who try to cram way too much unreadable information into a 250x250-pixel ad. Double that problem at 125x125. The second relates to Heysme's comment above. She has trained herself to barely notice 250x250 ads. Double that at 125x125. We want our ads to be effective and also not make our website as a whole look like a jumbled puzzle of tiny ads that don't work.


about 10 years ago

Just having fun.


about 10 years ago

Huh.  Interesting conversation.  Couple of things come to mind.

First, I have some experience working with Google AdSense.  It was my understanding that you could filter out certain ads ahead of time.  When I ran an GAS account, we were able to input the URLs of competitors to ensure that they did not advertise on our site.  Granted, we knew the content that we didn't want to show.  So perhaps in PDDs case, this would have to be a more 'reactionary' model.

Second, it was my understanding that Google AdSense serves up content based on past internet browsing. ("behavior")  For example, if I were to visit the Duluth Pack website, then [if Duluth Pack runs ads on the Google AdSense network] I'm more likely to see DP ads shown in GAS spaces.  So, the question is, who's been looking at Japanese dating sites? (PAUL?!?)

Subset of second thought -- could that Japanese dating ad having been served on PDD be related to a -- ahem -- "legacy" post category?  That is, Google scanned PDD and VIOLA! ..."Related" advertising.

Third, if -- according the some of the conversation above -- a fair number of people don't even notice the ads, then why all the hubbub?

Fourth -- It was my understanding that you could actually filter out the ads being served to you by clicking on the "ad choices" link in the corner of the ad space.

My personal views on any Google AdSense or any content advertising service are that they are, overall, a very good thing:

1)  It allows content creators (i.e. website owners) to focus on creating valuable content for their readers instead of worrying about finding new advertisers.

2)  It's an easy way to for wonderful community resources to get the financial support that they need to pay for website maintenance, servcer space, bandwidth, etc, etc.  For those who haven't had a website, I think the actual costs of running something like this may surprise you.

3)  It's an easy way for the community to support a wonderful community resource.  These type of ads do not pay a monthly rate to show up on PDD like the other ads.  Rather, PDD is paid a few pennies every time someone clicks on an ad and visits the advertisers website.

Personally, I actually enjoyed seeing my past browsing behavior pop on on PDD.  Oftentimes, it reminded me of a website I visited in the past week or month and meant to go back, but hadn't until then.  Beyond that, I often clicked on those Google Ads because I was curious about whatever silliness was advertising in that space.

Paul Lundgren

about 10 years ago

In PDD's weirder days there was actually a category called "Creepy Japanese Things," which Tomasz was referring to, and to which he contributed at least one post.

For evidence that it wasn't just me and my personal browsing habits that caused the objectionable ad to display, I'll share one complaint we received:

Just on the PDD website for things going on when I have friends in town. Very disappointed to see an ad for international dating with Japanese ladies! Doesn't belong there. Consider me one very insulted woman and I would guess I'm not the only one.

My guess is that maybe the content of the Nerd Night 19 entry in the PDD Calendar triggered the ad, since it makes reference to Japan being "#1 at #2."

As for filtering the ads, we didn't look very closely into how to do that, but one member of our brain trust searched online (Google, of course) and basically found that others were having the same problems even with filters activated and complaints to Google were falling on deaf ears.


about 10 years ago

LOL! Good God ... I have been posting on this site for waaay too long. Thanks for digging that up, Paul.

And thanks for the response, Paul. Good to know you're not the only one with questionable browsing behavior.

I'm very sorry that the lady in the above quoted email was offended. However, I think we have to acknowledge that there is simply no way to make everyone happy all of the time. This is just one person of the thousands that reads and contributes to PDD every day.

Of course the counterpoint to this argument is that of the "iceberg" theory; that if one person complains, there's 10 more that feel similarly, but haven't said anything.

Mostly, I'm saddened that PDD is being financially penalized because of one person who feels insulted by one ad. Considering how the community supplies the majority of the content on PDD, I would venture to say that there have been, currently are, and will always be things that are waaay more insulting to waaay more people than one Japanese dating site ad.

And once again, having had that ad served up suggests past browsing behavior that would imply an association with similar content. So maybe that person is not so much insulted by the ad itself, but by her private predilections being displayed so "publicly."

Perhaps the solution here lies in education.  An honest and forthright conversation about how advertising -- several different forms -- works and supports a valuable community resource like this and one. ... And how one comes with the other.  Perhaps this post is the first step toward achieving this.

Paul Lundgren

about 10 years ago

To clarify: We didn't remove Google AdSense because there was a complaint. We removed Google AdSense because we agreed with the complaint.

And -- I'll speak for myself here -- it's not the mere notion of certain men being horny for Japanese women that I find offensive, it's that there are likely to be terrible practices associated with a business that I'm sure essentially pimps out young girls or runs some level of scam. I don't want to have any part of that chain of events, even if I can just blame it on Google.

(I realize the ad was attempting to portray a "dating" service and not a sex service, but when a specific ethnicity is specified in the dating service ad it becomes less believable that the business is trying to connect people for long-term loving relationships and more likely that some scumbag is profiting from exploiting women and possibly girls.)

about 10 years ago

I loved the Creepy Japanese Things posts! There's a really quirky sense of humor thing going on with Japan that I've always admired.


about 10 years ago

This ad got banned in 2010:


I am a fan of The Nation's advertising policy: 

Advertising Policy Excerpted from the January 27, 1979, issue. Although the relationship of the First Amendment to commercial advertising is complex, we start with strong presumption against banning advertisers because we disapprove of, or even abhor, their political or social views. But we reserve (and exercise) the right to attack them in our editorial columns. The Nation does not consider itself bound by standards that must be applied to just any public forum. Our pages are primarily given over to articles that are consistent with the views of the editors. While we also publish articles and letters from readers that diverge from, or even diametrically contradict, the views of the editors, this is not out of a sense that our pages should be open to all or because we believe we are obliged to achieve balance. Whatever we publish appears in the magazine because in our judgment the views expressed deserve to be called to the attention of our readers by us. We are a magazine of limited circulation that enjoys no monopoly on the attention of our readers. They obtain other views in other places, and, through that process, determine for themselves what views to accept or reject. Advertising is different. We accept it not to further the views of The Nation but to help pay the costs of publishing. We start, therefore, with the presumption that we will accept advertising even if the views expressed are repugnant to those of the editors. The only limits are those that grow out of our interest in assuring that the advertising does not impede our use of the editorial columns of The Nation to say what we want. Examples of advertising we might reject are those where the typography and layout simulate our editorial format and, thereby, deceive readers; or advertisements that are lurid or typographically ugly or that distort the appearance of The Nation by their size, frequency or placement; or that are patently fraudulent, illegal or libelous in their claims and language. Blatantly misleading ads, or ads purveying harmful products, will fall into a gray area of discretion, but as a general principle, we assume that our readers will have sufficient knowledge to judge for themselves the merits of commonly known products (such as cigarettes). In imposing such limits, we will refrain from making judgments based on our opinions of the particular views expressed in an advertisement. If the purpose of the advertisement is to sell a product or service rather than to express a view, we will allow ourselves greater rein in making judgments about suitability. This reflects our view that commerce is less sacrosanct than political speech. When we open our pages to political advertising that may be repugnant to the editors, we are furthering our editorial commitment to freedom of speech. Again, our obligation to accept anything in our pages does not derive from principles that must be applied to a public forum. Nor does it rise to the level of obligation that should be felt by a newspaper of general circulation or a television station which either by itself, or with a few others like it, enjoys a monopoly on communication with the general public in a particular community. Our obligation is of a lesser, but still important, order: to use space in which we refrain from expressing editorial policy in a way that reflects our editorial commitment to diversity in expression of opinion. (Unlike the New York Times, we do not limit our editorial opinions to two pages. As a journal of opinion, we do not face the certain reduction of space reserved for opinion as does the Times when it sells, in the words of Robert Sherrill, "advertising space on the inside of its cranium.") On the contrary, corporate political advertising within the limits described can only expand The Nation's "cranium" by enabling us to print many more pages.) Clearly, the whole question is a matter of drawing fine lines and making nice distinctions. Ethics and practicality are interwoven throughout the substance of the issue of how to enable journals of opinion to survive and expand their reach. We do not pretend that troublesome problems are absent from this question.

Paul Lundgren

about 10 years ago

I forgot about that Transistor ad.

Yes, in 2010 we decided it was not appropriate to allow Adam to make that particular personal attack. (I think we might have ran it briefly before we made that decision, I can't remember.) 

I'm sure most of you don't understand who is being attacked, and we're probably better off keeping it that way.

Paul Lundgren

about 2 months ago

Just sliding in 10 years later to note that PDD brought back Google AdSense advertising in 2016 when we learned how to block specific ads from showing up.

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