WordPress Ethics, Or How Offensive Obama T-Shirt Ads Ended Up On My Blog

WordPress supplies a versatile and useful product that is user-friendly (if I can manage it, believe me, it is user-friendly), inexpensive, and well-serviced. It also seems to be diligent about supplying regular information, which is especially important to me. So many companies, and especially the government, regularly surprise me with unpleasant, disrupting, or costly changes in what they provide that I only learn about by accident, or when they start causing me trouble.

A few months back, for example, Direct TV gave me no-charge charge access to HBO, just a couple of months after I had canceled it. There was no notice about this, and as a result, we didn’t watch the network at all for some time, since we didn’t know we were receiving the signal. It was puzzling that the access to HBO just appeared, and when it had hung around a few months, I decided to look at the bill, which we paid automatically. Now, I discovered, we were being charged for HBO, which I had just canceled.

When I called Direct TV, the representative apologized, took off the charge, credited me with a past months charge before I had realized what had happened, and removed HBO. He also gave me a long explanation about why this had happened, which boils down to this: when your service is interrupted (as it was several months ago; I was late with a bill payment), it is my responsibility to tell Direct TV what channels I was getting before the interruption, or it might just slip in premium channels without telling me when it reconnects my service. Is this written anywhere? No, it isn’t.

I no longer trust Direct TV.

I don’t trust the Transportation Security Administration, either. Last week, in the middle of a trip that involved several flights, I set off the gate alarm, as is my custom (I have a metal hip), and prepared for the ceremonial wanding. But this time, it wasn’t a wanding; oh no no no! It was a bona fide, full-body, rough massage feel-up that included a sprightly hello to my throat, rear-end, and naughty bits. In many cities, such stimulation would have cost me a pretty penny, though only if it were not performed by a large, heavy, middle-aged guy named Carl, as mine was. Yes, in rapid response to the underwear bomber, whose attempted act of terrorism was more than a year ago, TSA has now instituted new pat-down procedures designed to determine, among other things, what’s in your BVDs. There was no advance notice of this to flyers, of course, until I was actually at the feel-up point of no return, having made my meeting schedule and bought my non-refundable ticket. In fact, the new procedures had been instituted mid-day, after I had taken a flight including the usual game of Wand Me.

Now, back on the ground, I learn that some readers of my WordPress blog see a string of Google Ads in the text, ads triggered by key words and automatically generated. Apparently this has been going on for a year. Stupid me: I assumed that the web pages I saw on my PC screen and laptop (and the pages my wife and son see as well) were the same screens everyone saw. Nothing I had ever read from WordPress suggested otherwise. But a kind and alert reader mentioned in a comment that a recent post of mine including criticism of the President was accompanied, on his screen, with ads for “offensive but humorous” Obama T-shirts.


A blog is a personal and professional expression, the way I represent myself to the world, and part of my cyber-identity. I would never knowingly allow ads for offensive T-shirts, or any T-shirts, on Ethics Alarms.

After a bit of research, I encountered a page that you have to search for on the WordPress website, that explained everything…sort of:

“At WordPress.com, we sometimes display discreet AdSense advertisements on your blog to help pay the bills. This keeps free features free! No Ads is a paid upgrade that costs $29.97 per blog, per year. The ad code tries very hard to not intrude or show ads to logged-in readers, which means only a very small percentage of your page views will actually contain ads. To eliminate ads on your blog entirely, you can purchase the No-Ads Upgrade. The upgrade is especially attractive and useful to business blogs in order to eliminate any possibility of competitors’ ads displaying on their domains.

The No-Ads Upgrade is per blog. You can purchase the upgrade from the Upgrades panel of your dashboard.

What does WordPress mean that the “ad code tries very hard” not to show ads to logged-in readers? Does it show ads to logged-in readers or not? If I were a suspicious sort, I might suspect that it tries so hard because it doesn’t want me to know what my own blog looks like after it has been defaced with offensive  T-shirt ads. WordPress goes out of its way to provide a gazillion blog designs and graphic options to ensure that one’s blog looks just like you want it to look, except for the little detail of the ads it slips onto my posts for selected viewers.

Wrong. Deceptive. Unfair. Inconsiderate. Disrespectful. Irresponsible. Unprofessional.


This is a bait and switch, a breach of trust, and a double-cross, as well as being potentially damaging to me personally and professionally. Readers of Ethics Alarms undoubtedly assume that I know about the ads; after all, my name is on it; so is the name of my company. They may even assume that I choose the ads, approve their content, and profit from them. I don’t, and I was never given an opportunity to do any of these things.

If WordPress wanted to do this, it had the absolute obligation to make sure that I knew about it, and approved it. Oh, I’m sure something about the ads was buried in the tiny, endless, boring print of the “Agreement” I clicked on: that just makes what they have done legal, but it is still 10,000 miles and then some from being fair or  right. And nothing in that agreement said that racist T-shirt ads were part of the bargain…I’m pretty certain of that.

WordPress also had an obligation to give me a chance to 1) control the kinds of ads, if any, that I felt were appropriate for an ethics website 2) know about specific ads before they appeared on a post, and 3) see what my own blog looks like with the ads. I still don’t know.

I do know this, however:

  • I apologize to any reader of Ethics Alarms who has encountered these unauthorized ads.
  • I take full responsibility for allowing this to occur. It is my blog, and I should know how it operates, and what appears on it.
  • I will pay the $30 to make sure no Obama T-shirt ads, or any ads, appear again.

And I no longer trust WordPress.

18 thoughts on “WordPress Ethics, Or How Offensive Obama T-Shirt Ads Ended Up On My Blog

  1. The new TSA guidelines literally contain the words “testicular pressure” as the point to which physical inspection must now take place. Funny how this coincides with growing resistance of the population to submit to the new “backscatter” X-ray screening devices now in airports, which produce 10x the radiation they tell you, are operated without any proper radiation protection to the operators, never mind the passengers. Images are, in fact, being stored, despite our being told to the contrary. The images are very life-like and DO show the genitals very clearly (it’s how the machines are “tuned.” The scanners are being used on women and children primarily because males tend to be more assertive in refusal. So, recognize that you’ve been “taught a lesson” in your “refusal” to undergo the more stringent screening procedures, whether the standard electromagnetic induction devices or the new X-ray scanners. Of course, the underwear bomber was an inside job, designed to produce acceptance of this new world, but that would be “conspiracy theory” and I realize you don’t want to go there. But does it feel a little more like 1984 to you than you would like?

    • My own take on the new body search procedures is that this is the TSA’s way of extorting us into accepting the backscatter X-ray scans. As bad as the scans are, they do beat being felt up by some TSA goon—my apologies, agent.
      And, no, this won’t make us any safer. The TSA spends its time screening against the last few attempts to bring down a plane. The bad guys have the initiative, and TSA is apparently helpless in the face of that. So the screening lines get (and take) longer, the searches get more invasive, and nobody is any safer. It’s our tax dollars at work, but would be a joke, if only the TSA had a sense of humor.

      • I would walk through the gate naked rather than undergo the testicular feel-up.
        And yet the government has to be so politically correct that it can’t use intelligent profiling. OK for serial killers, racist for mass murderers. Go figure.

  2. As an aside, the technique WordPress was using to put ads on your blog is becoming quite common. The theory is that your regular readers have become familiar with your blog’s design, and they will simply tune out all the ads and focus on the content in its familiar location. Thus, there’s no point in cluttering up your site design for your regular readers. On the other hand, people who stumble onto your site from a search engine will be less likely to ignore the ads, so you want to show them. Many blog owners use this kind of system to make a little money off the search engine traffic without inundating their regular readers with ads. As with everything else on the web, the software that distinguishes between search engine traffic and regular readers depends on some flaky browser features, and it sometimes misses, thus the “tries very hard” language. So the trick of showing some of your visitors ads that you don’t see (you are, after all, a regular reader) isn’t necessarily intentionally deceptive. On the other hand, it’s certainly something they should tell you about.

  3. You should probably put your own google ads on here every Jan 1st and let them generate money for you until your $30 is recouped. Then take it off.

      • after further reflection, might I suggest that you find out where on the page the ads might show up, and keep a permanent sentence just above it in fine print that says a disclaimer like: “If you are seeing an ad, it’s because WordPress needs a penny. For more info, see my article. I have not endorsed or approved any ad you might see.

        I know it might make the blog look less clean, but you either give WordPress $30 or you let them earn the $2.80 from the ads. I’m sure with a low traffic blog like yours, they’d rather have the $30…which makes their efforts ever more extortionist in nature.

          • I’m sorry to say, but if it would take you 15.5 years to earn $30 in ad revenue from Google’s Adsense, then yes, your site is “Low Traffic”.

            You said it, not me.

              • 😦 I’m sorry. I’ll buy you a meal if you ever find Denver. If it’s worth anything, your site is HIGH on my priority list.

                • Just yanking your chain, Tim. It just bugs me sometimes: I read WordPress’s “fastest growing blogs,’ and they are all things like “The Anime Web Center” and “Demi Lovato Fan Blog’ and “I Hate O’Reilly.” As usual for me, the model for this blog is almost perversely uncommercial: it goes into all areas, rather than carving out one; it’s on a topic that most people find boring or don’t understand; and it doesn’t have a partisan or ideological alliance….and it doesn’t permit flaming. I’m more disappointed in the culture’s priorities than in my traffic.

  4. Jack, the problem is that you are now coerced into PAYing the people who planted the unethical material on your ethics blog in the first place to remove it … [sort of: the Groupon ad, deemed least offensive?, still appears on my screen].

    There is a way that companies can have their charges and earn them ethically too, whether for WordPress, Direct TV or — my personal bete noir — AT&T, which is to present all possible charges for extras, options, or upgrades up front, in the same size print they are using for the rest of the details. Every charge can be index-connected to further elucidation in the body of the microscopic contract or sign-up info elsewhere, so long as the reader has been alerted to its presence.

    (Okay, now you know I have an active fantasy life.)

    Anything less is what we used to call a protection racket. Once you’re committed, you need to pay more or have your product harmed or otherwise contaminated, either by removing or adding something you didn’t order. The difference between the mob breaking your windows and trashing your store is that your customers knew then that real damage was done and that you weren’t responsible. Nowadays it’s acceptable business practice in which the unethical behavior is not only that they hid the charges in the first place, but that they don’t (have to) admit “harm” or “contamination” when it is defined simply as “advertising.” They’re just trying to, uh, earn a living like the rest of us: is that it? [Taken to extremes, these are the political attack ads that we have been seeing too much of lately] As you pointed out, the additional risk is that your new customer/reader could think that you approved the damage yourself.

    Last, unlike your critiques of unethical behavior in persons, I don’t think the business — certainly not the corporations, answerable as they are only to their shareholders — cares if you trust it or not, so long as you pay up.

    Sorry you had to. And thanks. I suffer from chronic ad-phobia so I truly appreciate the physical relief.

    • Yes, protection racket is quite correct. The trick is unethical, and deceptive, and I’m pretty annoyed, but it’s a “pay the two dollars” situation. WordPress is still a good deal; I just have to keep my eyes open.

      I’m paying my “tribute” later today.

  5. Pingback: Note to Ethics Alarms Readers: No More Ads! (And I’m Sorry It Took So Long For Me To Kill Them) « Ethics Alarms

  6. I realize this is an old post but….

    When they first rolled out the adsense adverts. they didn’t tell anyone. Not even the folks helping out in their support forums. We went six months or so until they admitted to doing so. All that time we were telling folks who complained that their computer must have a virus and other things like that because we ourselves were being told that there wasn’t any adverts on blogs. Then Automattic told us that those adverts were only on the sitewide tag pages. Then a month or two later, they finally admitted to displayed adverts on individual blog pages but only for those folks coming in from search engines like Google.

    We also went like 18 months without an ToS, AUP or privacy policies.

    It was a nightmare. We did our best to help folks but we had our hands tied when no one from Automattic would tell us what was going on.

    I even remember one post by a developer who complained about how a single thread hadn’t been moved into the correct sub forum. Pissed me off considering I was doing that dozen of times every day.

    I would tell you the time when one of the main developers gave me a bigoted rant but he then threatened me legally and physically if I went public on that. Yup, lots of fun.

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