A startling investigative report in the London Times has shed yet more light on the difficulty of tracking where advertisers’ online dollars are going.
The report follows:
“Some of the world’s biggest brands are unwittingly funding Islamic extremists, white supremacists and pornographers by advertising on their websites, The Times can reveal.
Advertisements for hundreds of large companies, universities and charities, including Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Marie Curie, appear on hate sites and YouTube videos created by supporters of terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Combat 18, a violent pro-Nazi faction.
The practice is likely to generate tens of thousands of pounds a month for extremists. An advert appearing alongside a YouTube video, for example, typically earns whoever posts the video $7.60 for every 1,000 views. Some of the most popular extremist videos have more than one million hits.
Big advertising agencies, which typically place commercials on behalf of clients, have been accused of pushing brands into online advertising to boost their own profits.
Companies are concerned that they are paying huge mark-ups for digital promotion and receiving “crappy advertising” in return. Leaked documents from one “top-six” agency show that about 40 per cent of its advert-buying income in 2015 came from hidden kickbacks as well as from “other income”. One source said this mainly derived from mark-ups applied to digital commercials.
Analysis by The Times of online extremist content reveals that blacklists designed to prevent digital adverts from appearing next to it are not fit for purpose.
On YouTube, an advert for the new Mercedes E-Class saloon runs next to a pro-Isis video that has been viewed more than 115,000 times. The commercial appears a few seconds after the start of the video, which plays a song praising jihad over a picture of an Isis flag and an anti-aircraft gun. A commercial for the F-Pace SUV from Jaguar, the British carmaker, runs next to the video.
Sandals Resorts, the luxury holiday operator, is advertised next to a video promoting al-Shabaab, the East African jihadist group affiliated to al- Qaeda. Last night a Sandals spokeswoman said that it made “every effort” to stop its adverts appearing next to inappropriate content. It said that YouTube had “not properly categorised the video” as sensitive.
Adverts for Honda, Thomson Reuters, Halifax, the Victoria & Albert museum, Liverpool university, Argos, Churchill Retirement and Waitrose also appear on extremist videos posted on YouTube by supporters of groups that include Combat 18.
After The Times informed Google, which owns the social media platform, it took down some of the videos. It is understood that in some cases advertising revenues had gone to the rights holders of songs used on the videos rather than to the video owner.
A Google spokesperson said: “When it comes to content on YouTube, we remove flagged videos that break our rules and have a zero tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred.
“Some content on YouTube may be controversial and offensive, which is why we only allow advertising against videos which fall within our advertising guidelines.
“Our partners can also choose not to appear against content they consider inappropriate, and we have a responsibility to work with the industry to help them make informed choices.”
Several brands have accused agencies of not acting in their best interests. Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at P&G, the world’s biggest advertiser, warned last week: “We have a media supply chain which is murky at best and fraudulent at worst. We need to clean it up.”
Many of the companies said that they were unaware of and “deeply concerned” by their presence on the sites. They blamed programmatic advertising, a system using complex computer technology to buy digital adverts in the milliseconds that a webpage takes to load. Many agencies have their own programmatic divisions, which often apply mark-ups to digital commercials without the brands’ knowledge.
One Combat 18 video on YouTube, showing an armed man standing in front of a burning swastika, hosts an advert for Marie Curie, the hospice charity. An authorised Nissan dealer’s adverts appear on the official YouTube pages of far-right parties including the BNP and the English Defence League, while Sony is promoted on an anti-semitic video entitled: “The cunning of the Jews”.
And Argos, the retailer, is one of a number of brands advertised on sexually explicit YouTube videos.
The V&A and Waitrose advertise on the website of Britain First, the far-right party.
Commercials for HSBC, Eurotunnel and JD Sports appear on “alt-right” and Islamist websites, including one promoting a “Holocaust Amnesia Day”.
Adverts for John Lewis, Dropbox and Disney are embedded in sunnah-online.com. The website hosts lectures by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, a preacher banned from Britain who has argued that a husband cannot be charged with rape, and Esa al-Hindi, a terrorist sentenced to life imprisonment.
Lloyds Bank is advertised on eramuslim.com, a site banned last month by the Indonesian government for allegedly promoting hate speech.
Last night MPs called on Google to explain why hundreds of extremists were making money from advertising on YouTube. Users that intend to make money from advertising must be approved by Google, which is supposed to ensure that videos do not breach the site’s terms and conditions.
“This is deeply disturbing,” Chuka Umunna, a Labour member of the home affairs select committee, said. “There is no doubt the social media companies could be doing far more to prevent the spread of extremist content.”
Programmatic advertising enables agencies to track potential customers around the web and serve them adverts on whichever website they are browsing. Some agencies have been accused of making huge undeclared profits as a result.
“Programmatic advertising is a big concern for us and the whole advertising industry,” Hicham Felter, a spokesman for ISBA, the trade body representing Britain’s biggest advertisers, said.
“There is a greater risk of ads appearing in violent, pornographic, extremist and other ‘unsafe’ brand environments because of the volume and speed at which programmatic trading is carried out.” He added: “The suspicion is that the surge in programmatic trading is being fuelled by the profit media agencies can make rather than because it delivers better results for their clients.”
A Google spokeswoman said that it had a “zero-tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred”. Advertisers could choose not to appear against content they considered inappropriate, she said. The six top advertising agencies each denied any wrongdoing, conflict of interest or sharp practice and said that their relationships with clients were transparent.
At MOP we agree that this matter deserves very close consideration.
Online advertising markets operate without adequate supervision because they are automated, operating in real time without any human intervention necessary – the activity is just too complicated and huge for the human factor to be worked in effectively.
As American commentator Bob Hoffman put it:
“You you can’t make this shit up. Anyone who’s not comatose knows that in the insane world of “adtech” and “programmatic buying” (in which computers buy ad space from other computers) all kinds of wonderful opportunities for corruption, fraud, and appalling awfulness exist.
Let me repeat what I’ve said so many times. Online advertisers…
… don’t know what they’re buying
… don’t know who they’re buying it from
… don’t know where it’s running
… don’t know what they’re paying.
If these appalling episodes don’t prove it, I don’t know what will.
The only surprise here is that sophisticated advertisers believe the bullshit their agencies tell them about the “systems they have in place” to protect them from this kind of crap.”
According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, under mounting pressure from marketers one popular advertising vehicle, Facebook, has apparently agreed to have some of its key metrics audited by independent third parties.
These are stories we will be following closely on behalf of our advertisers, and the common good. We will report back in due course.