Facebook has apologized after photos of a Canadian girl who hanged herself in April were used yesterday in two variations of an ad for a dating site that appeared on Facebook, both with the headline "Find Love in Canada!"
Even more horrifyingly, the girl in question, Rehtaeh Parsons, who was 17 when she died (her suicide attempt led to a coma, and ultimately the decision by her family to remove her from life support on April 7), had been the subject of cyberbullying -- including on Facebook -- after a photo of her alleged rape by four boys was shared online.
The Toronto Star has published a statement from Facebook that reads, "This is an extremely unfortunate example of an advertiser scraping an image from the Internet and using it in their ad campaign." The Star notes that Facebook, which removed the ad for ionechat.com, says the company has been permanently banned. The Facebook statement to the Star also includes this line: "We apologize for any harm this has caused."
Ionechat.com has gone offline. Registration records show that the ionechat.com URL was only created on August 3; the administrator named on the account is Dung Nguyen of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (I've emailed him for comment and will update if I hear back). The presumably clueless use of Rehtaeh Parsons' photos by such a fly-by-night operation underscores the hazards of Facebook's self-serve advertising business, which assumes a certain level of competence among its users that was obviously lacking in this case.
Rehtaeh Parsons' face in the ionechat.com ad was noticed by a number of Facebook users, including Toronto advertising copywriter Andrew Ennals, who yesterday afternoon tweeted:
Supreme bad taste: a dating site's Facebook ad is using a picture of Rehteah Parsons. pic.twitter.com/nbYhRFr5Mc— Andrew Ennals (@andrewennals) September 17, 2013
Two minutes after that tweet, he posted another screenshot with the caption, "And in fact, the same ad is now on my screen using a DIFFERENT picture of her."
Rehtaeh Parsons sadly became a household name in Canada as her case made headlines. As the BBC reports,
According to Rehtaeh's mother, Leah, the Nova Scotia-based teenager had attended a party two years earlier where she had got drunk and been raped. And a photo of the incident had subsequently been circulated online.
"People harassed her, boys she didn't know started texting her and Facebooking asking her to have sex with them since she had had sex with their friends. It just never stopped," Mrs Parsons told CBC News in April.
The case has continued to make news in Canada. Just last month, two 18-year-old men were arrested in connection with the case on child-pornography charges given the online circulation of the alleged sexual-assault image.
Last night, Rehtaeh Parsons' father, Glen Canning, published a screen shot of the Facebook ad in a blog post titled "POSSIBLY THE WORST FACEBOOK AD EVER." The full text of his post:
This is my daughter, Rehtaeh. They have her in an ad for meeting singles. I don't even know what to say.
In an interview with the Toronto Star this morning, Canning said that he found the use of his daughter's photos in the ad to be "disturbing and disgusting." He added that "I think banning the ionechat.com company was the right move to make. It's hard to say what can be done but I think Facebook removed it fast, and I appreciate that and they apologized for it which is good."
Canada's The Globe and Mail newspaper got additional word from Facebook about the nature of the ad:
Media reports on Tuesday inaccurately said that the Facebook ads were a result of Facebook's system of "social context" advertising. This allows advertisers to use real people's photographs in ads delivered to their friends. For example, if a person named Mary likes a TV show, her friends may see an ad telling them about it; it's an attempt by Facebook to personalize the ad. However, spokesperson Meg Sinclair said in an interview that this was not an example of a Sponsored Story or Social Context ad.
Sinclair added that "Someone could screen shot it" -- an image of Rehtaeh Parsons -- "from anywhere."
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.