Brands try to Blacklist Breitbart, but ads slip through anyway

Sapna Maheshwari
Source: Breitbart

Since the presidential election, hundreds of companies have decided to block their advertisements from running on Breitbart News, the alt-right website closely tied to President Trump's administration. But several of those brands, from the Nordstrom department store chain to small start-ups, have appeared on the site anyway, another example of how little control companies often have over where their ads are seen online.

Nordstrom, which said it moved to prevent its ads from running on Breitbart several months ago, was on the site as recently as two weeks ago, puzzling employees and others online, who were quick to take screenshots and question the company on Twitter. Other advertisers, including BMW of North America and Scribie, a transcription service, also appeared on Breitbart after blocking their ads from the site, a practice known as blacklisting.

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The problem underscores the challenges companies continue to face with the largely automated nature of online advertising, which tends to show messages to people based on who they are, rather than what site they visit. While errant appearances on unwanted sites may be rare — Nordstrom runs millions of ads daily, it said, and fewer than 200 show up on Breitbart — the risks of being viewed there have spiked, with consumer watchdogs and news outlets using screenshots and social media to call out brands for appearing near questionable content like hate speech or terrorist propaganda. Brands are frequently left scrambling to figure out how they got there.

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"If a brand doesn't want to be associated with a particular publisher for whatever reason, it's kind of crazy that they request for it to be blacklisted and still spend money on it," said Andrew Casale, the chief executive of Index Exchange, an online advertising exchange. "This is all evidence of gaps in our supply chain, which are becoming visible to the mainstream."

AT&T and Johnson & Johnson were among prominent advertisers that pulled their marketing from YouTube and Google ad exchanges on Wednesday after news reports showed their ads running next to offensive material. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Walmart were part of another wave of companies that pulled nonsearch ads from Google on Friday after The Wall Street Journal discovered the brands alongside YouTube videos with racist and anti-Semitic content.

The actions extended Google boycotts that advertisers in Britain, such as The Guardian and clients of Havas, a French advertising multinational, began earlier in the month based on similar reports.

Those motivated to choke off Breitbart's ad revenue have become particularly attentive to which brands appear on the site. That effort has been led by a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants, which uses screenshots to publicize and shame brands with ads on the site. The anonymously led account, which has more than 75,000 followers, was created in November as Breitbart drew attention for its ties to Stephen K. Bannon, the site's former chairman and now the chief White House strategist, and as critics accused the site of promoting racist and misogynistic views.

Breitbart and fake news have become the focal points for advertiser awareness around "brand safety" domestically, said Brian Wieser, a media industry analyst at Pivotal Research. A spokesman for Breitbart did not respond to requests to comment.

Fewer advertisers seem to be appearing on Breitbart, which may be a result of some ad networks and brand safety companies blocking it in recent months, citing hate speech violations or deeming the content too inflammatory.

Breitbart had about 1,300 advertisers on its website last month, showing about 2,600 display ads, according to data from Moat Pro, a digital ad intelligence product. That was down from 3,300 advertisers and 11,500 display ads in November. It is not clear if the boycott has had a financial impact, although the top thousand domestic advertisers accounted for 73 percent of display advertising spending last year, Kantar Media said.

Brands are finding that the mechanics of online ads, typically placed through a complex system of agencies and third-party networks that resemble a stock exchange, can be difficult to explain to consumers.

Nordstrom, for example, responded on Twitter to complaints about its ads on Breitbart by saying, "Although we no longer advertise with Breitbart, some of our ads may appear due to the nature of how online ads work." Nordstrom said by email that while it had blacklisted Breitbart through the vendors it uses to buy and serve ads, it bought some ads through online exchanges that allow sites to conceal their addresses, which may account for the appearances.

"At this time, Nordstrom doesn't block those types of advertising opportunities because many prominent, well-respected and legitimate websites choose to use these tactics," Emily Sterken, a spokeswoman, said by email. "Our teams are looking into how we might address this situation."

Ben Winkler, the chief investment officer at the agency OMD, said other brands that showed up on Breitbart in spite of blacklists probably had several parties handling their digital ad spending, including local marketing affiliates, publishers and public relations agencies. For a major company, "there are probably, at any given time, 100 different campaigns being run by a dozen different departments across a thousand websites and a dozen agencies," he said. "To think that every single one of those players is religiously and slavishly using the approved site list or is blacklisting Breitbart is unlikely."

BMW of North America has encountered that issue because its marketing plan does not extend to dealerships. While the company does not buy ads on Breitbart, Phil DiIanni, a spokesman, noted that "dealerships are independent businesses and decide for themselves on their local advertising."

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Justin Oliver, who oversees digital marketing for Scribie, a start-up in San Francisco, blocked Breitbart from the sites it may advertise on through Google after Sleeping Giants contacted the company in late February. He assumed the issue was resolved but then learned through several messages on Twitter that Scribie was still appearing on Breitbart by way of Facebook's audience network, which places ads on sites outside Facebook.

"The next thing I know, I'm getting more of these screenshots, and more people saying, 'You're on a white-pride site,' and it's the worst thing you can see when you're a marketing manager," Mr. Oliver said. He added that he had not chosen to turn on the extended option for the Facebook ads, which allowed for the ads to be placed on Breitbart, and that he shut it off after fielding complaints.

The New York Times has also inadvertently run ads on Breitbart. The Times started limiting its ads in the United States to a list of preapproved websites on Jan. 1, said Jason Sylva, vice president for media at the company. But since then, the company has been spotted on Breitbart by people accessing the site from countries like Finland and Canada. The Times is in the process of developing an international preapproved list, Mr. Sylva said.

Perversely, because so much online advertising follows people wherever they go on the web, the attention on Breitbart and, separately, more extreme sites has increased their traffic, making the problem even bigger, said Joe Barone, managing partner of digital ad operations for GroupM, the media buying arm of the ad giant WPP.

"As we become more aware of these extreme news environments, they're actually gaining more traction in the marketplace," he said. "They generate more inventory going on exchanges, and the likelihood of showing up on these sites even if blacklisted goes up."