Erowid
 
 
Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Erowid Relies on Donations From Visitors Like You
Constant Commerce
Who's in Control of the Ads?
by Fire Erowid
Jun 2004
Citation:   Erowid F. "Constant Commerce: Who's in Control of the Ads?" Erowid Extracts. Jun 2004;6:2.
One part of our work at Erowid is to try to stay up-to-date on media about psychoactive chemicals. So when, on February 13th, 2004, we heard that the Chicago Tribune had published a new article about the abuse of "cold medicine", we went to their website to read what they had to say.

The article, titled "Abuse of cold medicine on rise: Some stores try to thwart teens", focused on the increase in the use of DXM-containing tablets--as opposed to syrups--among young people. The article was reasonable, addressing the relative difficulty of drinking a bottle of cough syrup compared to the ease of consuming tablets. The concern they expressed was that increased availability of DXM-containing tablets is causing an increase in use.
"Emergency room physicians are reporting a sharp increase in teens abusing non-prescription cough and cold medicines, which are back in vogue as recreational drugs because the products are accessible and easier to take than ever before.

[...] The latest concerns have caused some drugstore chains to limit purchases. But the efforts don't go far enough, say many critics, who are urging that all such products be sold strictly from behind the counter.

'It's not illegal to purchase. It's not even illegal to take in large quantities. It's just dangerous and foolish and that is what is scaring everybody,' said Dr. Charles Nozicka, director of pediatric emergency medicine at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates."
The article continued, telling the story of a 17-year-old who had problems controlling his use of Coricidin tablets and eventually ended up in a substance abuse treatment center.

But what was particularly--disturbing? amusing? concerning?--was that when we first visited the Chicago Tribune website to try to find the article, we entered "DXM" into their search field and hit GO. At the top of the results page appeared three paid advertisements (see screenshot). One of the ads was for a website discouraging the use of DXM as a psychoactive. The other two were for vendors selling psychoactive products. The first of these was for a research chemical vendor advertising a selection of research chemicals (2C-I, 5-MeO-DMT, 2C-E) as well as pure DXM powder. The second was for a site selling "Dextromethorphan Bulk".

Chicago Tribune Advertising Screenshot, Feb 2004

This brings up interesting questions about who is in control of advertising in the digital age. Erowid is often accused by detractors of promoting the use of psychoactives, but we have a strict policy against accepting advertisements and choose not to link to sites we know sell psychoactive research chemicals. Yet the Chicago Tribune, a major urban newspaper, has systems in place which feed ads for psychoactive chemical vendors to their readers, even going so far as to place ads for bulk DXM around a story decrying its use. It seems unlikely that the Chicago Tribune would have chosen these ads to be displayed. Yet they are willing to give up control to an automated system that produces unexpected and often undesirable results. The system ignores the nuances of article content, working off of keyword matches. Those three ads may have sensibly matched the search term "DXM", but they appear ludicrous when combined with the article in question.

One part of Erowid's mission is to separate the distribution of information from sales, with the hope this can help reduce the conflicts of interest that complicate neutral consideration. The problem of unwanted advertisements is a growing issue. We recently had to remove the Google phrase search from our search page due to similar issues. Search results were being displayed on Erowid pages with Erowid headers and footers, next to vendor-sponsored ads fed by Google. All too often, these ads were for research chemical vendors.

It's interesting that, despite the War on Drugs, a search done on a term related to psychoactive materials--using the major search engines Google and Yahoo--results in a good portion of the browser window filled with ads for psychoactive vendors.

The Chicago Tribune has since taken down its article about the abuse of DXM tablets, but as of early May 2004, a search on the term "DXM" on their website still provided the same advertisement results.