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.”

JACK SULLIVAN


BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker orders $98 million in mid-year budget cuts, drawing criticism from legislative leaders who call the move premature. (State House News Service)

The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments tomorrow by lawyers for former House speaker Tom Finneran, who is seeking to have restored the state pension that he was stripped of following his felony conviction for obstruction of justice in connection with his testimony in redistricting lawsuit. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS 

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno vetoes a citizen police commission, setting the stage for an override attempt. (Masslive)

New Bedford will have to find the money to pay back wages from a 2009 furlough order following a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court that the forced reduction in hours constituted an unfair labor practice. (Standard-Times)

Boston homeowners are likely to see in a drop in real estate taxes averaging $300 as the city moves to increase the exemption granted to owner-occupants. (Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL 

Democrats say they look forward to a coming battle with Republicans over Medicare, a showdown in which they think Americans will be on their side. (Boston Globe)

Shorter Scot Lehigh: Michael Flynn is nuts and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the national security adviser position. (Boston Globe)

Donald Trump has done and said a lot of kooky things, but taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan was not one of them, says Jeff Jacoby. (Boston Globe)

James Aloisi says the election of Trump and coming one-party rule in Washington call for a renewed commitment to the principles of democratic rule and political pluralism. (CommonWealth)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Appalachian Mountain Club moves from Beacon Hill to Charlestown. (Masslive)

The country’s trade deficit widened in the third quarter, mostly from a spike in imports from China, and experts say the increased gap bodes ill for the economy for the fourth quarter. (U.S. News & World Report)

EDUCATION 

UMass School of Law in Dartmouth has been given full accreditation by the American Bar Association. (Herald News)

Easton school officials have proposed adding an advanced computer science class and a course in Mandarin Chinese to the high school curriculum. (The Enterprise)

Bridgewater State University is reeling in trying to cope with the unrelated deaths of seven students in the last seven months. (The Enterprise)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE 

All eyes are on Vermont as it pushes the envelope with an all-payer health system. (Governing)

Repealing Obamacare won’t fix the problems with US health care, writes Boston attorney Peter O’Connor. (CommonWealth)

TRANSPORTATION 

JetBlue settles a lawsuit brought by the mother of a 5-year-old child who was flown by the airline to the wrong destination. (MassLive)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The leader of the team of experts conducting a comprehensive inspection of the beleaguered Pilgrim nuclear power plant sent an email Monday to NRC officials — and mistakenly included an anti-Pilgrim activist — saying the staff at the Plymouth facility seem “overwhelmed just trying to run the station.” (Cape Cod Times)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS 

In a motion filed late yesterday, Attorney General Maura Healey said she intends to file an appeal of a judge’s order that she appear in a Texas courtroom to answer questions regarding her legal battle with ExxonMobil over the company’s pronouncements about the impact of fossil fuels and climate change. (Boston Herald)

A former van driver who transported clients to and from an elder care facility in Norwell was indicted on charges of sexually assaulting six women with dementia while he was alone with each in the vehicle. (Patriot Ledger)

A 22-year-old woman who was raped at age 14 is fighting an Appeals Court ruling that may allow the perpetrator visitations rights with the 7-year-old girl conceived from his sexual assault. (Boston Herald)

A former Berkley selectman has been cleared of rape accusations by a former girlfriend and police have filed charges against the woman for lying about the incident and filing a false report. (Herald News)

MEDIA 

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center says the press failed voters in the election. Time names Donald Trump its person of the year.

NPR’s Asma Khalid tells what it was like covering Donald Trump as a Muslim. (WBUR)

Stat, the health and science website owned by the Boston Globe, launches a $299-a-year subscription service. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

The anti-gun group Sandy Hook Promise, formed in the wake of the shooting that killed 20 children at the elementary school of the same name, has released a stunning public service announcement whose ending will stop you in your tracks. (Washington Post)