Until the morning, Facebook was running two ads for a Canadian dating site, both of which featured photos of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old who committed suicide after she was allegedly gang raped by four boys who then circulated photos of the assault online. "Find Love in Canada!" read each ad, over a photograph of the deceased teenager's face — photos that were distributed at vigils following her tragic death.
The ads came to public attention after Andrew Ennals, who lives in Toronto, tweeted screenshots of them:
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
And in fact, the same ad is now on my screen using a DIFFERENT picture of her. pic.twitter.com/PrHYqXRZeI— Andrew Ennals (@andrewennals) September 17, 2013
After seeing the Tweets, Rehtaeh's father Glen Canning wrote a blog post entitled "Possibly the Worst Facebook Ad Ever":
Perhaps it’s not the worst ad ever but certainly it’s the worst ad I will ever see. It’s bad enough my daughter Rehtaeh died following months of torment and that her sexual assault was immortalized with a photograph, but to see an ad on Facebook using her image is beyond words. What a sickening thing to do! ... There she was, smiling, and being used yet again.
At first I thought it could be a simple mistake but what would the chances of that be, given two images were used? Once maybe, twice has to be intentional. I quickly thought of the marketing some pop stars do before they release a new song and how it’s believed even bad press is good press — so do something outrageous. Would someone do something like this for hits on a web site? Sure they would. It happens all the time.
Whether using the image of a sexual assault victim was intentional or not, the publicity backfired hugely: Facebook promptly removed the advertisements. In a statement, a Facebook spokesman wrote, "This is an extremely unfortunate example of an advertiser scraping an image from the internet and using it in their ad campaign. This is a gross violation of our ad policies and we have removed the ad and permanently deleted the advertiser's account. We apologise for any harm this caused."
I would say that this displays an abysmal amount of (quite possibly accidental) bad taste, but I don't want to minimize the offense by even associating it with decency. As Jamie Peck points out at the Gloss, it's likely that the ad arose from "a bot programmed to comb the internet for words like “girl,” “Canada,” and “sex,” then post whatever photos resulted." However, regardless of intent, the harm is still significant: at best, these dating ads are a reminder of the ghastly exploitation of a teenage girl who was traumatized because of photographs that were circulated without her permission or consent. At worst, they're a reification of it.