The Catch-22 of online advertising

As advertisers flee the dead tree versions of news for the online sites that can target audiences through complex algorithms, they are confronting an unintended and growing problem that has their ads popping up on sites they’d rather not be associated with.

Much of it has played out in the shadows and companies have been able to claim they have little control over where the third-party bots decide to place the ads. But the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the race-baiting alt-right has put a spotlight on the issue. Opponents of Trump, and especially Steve Bannon, his new White House special advisor, are boycotting products and companies whose ads appear on Breitbart News, formerly run by Bannon.

While many national brands such as Kellogg’s, online retailer NewEgg, and Allstate Insurance have blocked their ads from appearing on the radical conservative site after being the target of protests, locally, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has stopped its internet advertising after learning the ads were popping up on Breitbart.

“It was not something we did proactively,” Dana-Farber spokesman Steven Singer told the Boston Globe after the paper alerted him of the issue. “We always seek to avoid controversial sites, but this is clearly an imperfect process, and we have paused our digital advertising while we do a careful review.”

Partners HealthCare, the parent organization of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also blocked its advertising from appearing on Breitbart, with a spokesman saying, Breitbart is “certainly not a site that we would target.”

Which is kind of the point of online advertising. It’s not the sites that are targeted, it’s the viewers. And that’s where the imperfect process goes off the rails. The third-party ad placement companies, which include internet giant Google, use a mind-numbing collection of information but two main data points are your location and browsing history collected by the cookies embedded in your computer.

For instance, I did an unrelated story on Century Bank and Trust in Medford recently and searched the company’s site for information. Now, Century ads pop up on many of the websites I visit, including when I’ve gone on Breitbart. Does that mean Century, which is currently the only bank in Massachusetts openly dealing with the medical marijuana industry, supports the right-wing site that has become a bullhorn for white supremacist and misogynist views? Unlikely.

On the flip side, few sites that enter into agreements for such advertising have much control over what shows up on their pages. We’ve recently allowed limited ads on the CommonWealth website and while you’ll find advertising for staid insurance and investment companies, if you surf the web like I do, you’ll also see ads for police-tested flashlights and the conservative anti-Clinton organization Judicial Watch.

But it is Breitbart that has generated the most blowback, even though many people understand there is little that companies can control on advertising placement without specific orders to avoid specific sites. Or maybe many people don’t. The cacophony surrounding Bannon’s appointment and the subsequent consumer backlash shows opponents to Donald Trump will hold those companies who advertise either knowingly or unknowingly on Breitbart responsible for the content on the site.

That, though, brings up another issue in the new age of advertising. Part of the benefit companies see in using technology instead of declining newsprint to tout their wares is the ability to focus on target audiences, where they are more likely to find a receptive customer and at a much cheaper and more cost-effective rate. By limiting where their ads can appear, they are also limiting who sees it and decreasing the value of their ads.

And while placating the noisy protests, the companies also risk alienating those potential customers who frequent the sites as well as those who champion the First Amendment over speech content. Breitbart, for instance, brags of having 45 million visitors and is mustering them to launch a boycott of Kellogg’s for pulling its advertising from the site.

The CEO of Taboola, which sells ads that recommend other web articles and places advertising on Breitbart, told the Wall Street Journal “it is not Taboola’s job, nor place, to censor or dictate an opinion as to what is allowed and what is not allowed for people to write about.”

As Michael Jordan once famously said when refusing to become involved in a heated Senate race in his native North Carolina involving noted racist Jesse Helms, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”



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