The Wild Wild Web

How ads targeting the marriage-minded wound up on a page about serial killers

Barbie and Ken’s Killer Wedding Photo:

Nestled in the northern foothills of San Benito County, Léal Vineyards sounds like a beautiful place to get married. “Our spectacular Barrel Room can be custom catered to create an exquisite atmosphere for your wedding or reception,” the website says. I had never heard of Léal Vineyards until a week ago, but I didn’t find it because I was searching for a wedding venue — I was searching for the most notorious serial killer couple in Canadian history.

Taking a break from a long night of deadline-induced writing, I stumbled upon an Investigation Discovery documentary about Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, dubbed the “Barbie and Ken Killers” because of their All-American good looks. A match made in hell, the pair kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered teenaged girls, including Homolka’s own younger sister, Tammy, and recorded it all on videotape. It turns out Bernardo had an insatiable thirst for virgins and Homolka, unable to give her husband that gift, helped him get it from others.

On June 29, 1991 the couple got married in what describes as “an elaborate wedding” including “riding in a white horse-drawn carriage with the bride dressed in an expensive white gown.” Below that, an ad for Léal Vineyards appeared touting its exquisite locale for your nuptials. After the Léal Vineyards ad, the copy continued: “This is also the same day the cement encased body of Leslie Mahaffy was found in a lake. She was one of the Bernardo’s victims who was tortured, raped, murdered and disposed of by the happy newlyweds.”

Obviously, Léal Vineyards paid for “targeted advertising,” which picks out certain keywords in web content and matches it with what the customer is selling. Phrases like “elaborate wedding,” “white horse-drawn carriage,” and “bride dressed in an expensive white gown” contain logical keywords, but the fact that the algorithm could not distinguish them from phrases like “Killer Couple,” “cement-encased body,” and “tortured, raped, murdered” is something businesses should consider before entrusting their advertising to a computer.

If you ask an ad rep for ABC to run your commercial during Modern Family, you can rest assured that’s where it will wind up. Likewise, a sales rep for a newspaper will honor your request to land in the food section. That’s definitely not the case with web ads. On the Homolka/Bernardo page of, Léal Vineyards wasn’t the only company pedaling wedding services to visitors more curious about serial killers — the Willow Heights Mansion in Morgan Hill, Calif. was right below them, followed by and ads promoting rings, photography, ice sculptures, and mother of the groom dresses. At the bottom of the page, reveals a list of top related searches, and the algorithm’s keyword problems are even more evident: “child rapist,” “Homolka and Bernardo,” “white gown,” “horse drawn carriage,” and “Homolka released from prison.” As shocking as it is, Homolka received a deal for turning on her hubby before authorities discovered the horrific videotapes and realized how much more involved she was than they originally thought. Just as shocking to me is the fact that an algorithm can’t decipher the difference between people searching for “horse drawn carriage” and people searching for “child rapist.”

If you think search king Google is any better, you’d be wrong. Recently I sent an e-mail from my Gmail account that referenced my rescued pit bull puppy, and the fact that America euthanizes 4 million of the 8 million unwanted animals entering our broken shelter system each year. So what advertiser did Google’s brilliant algorithm match me up with? A breeder selling bulldog puppies.

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