It’s 11 p.m., do you know where your ads are?

B.C. businesses and schools hurry to distance themselves from controversial media organizations after activists raise alarm over advertising with Breitbart and others
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Do you know on which websites your business’ online advertisements appear?

Online exposure is an increasingly integral part of cultivating and establishing a connection with current and new customers – after all, a company’s online advertisements help create its image. Now, an increasing number of Canadian businesses are learning the hard way that their ads are being featured on sites whose views and voice may clash with their own.

Over the past few months online activist groups have been using social media to inform businesses that their ads are appearing on websites that promote bigoted views. One such group, Sleeping Giants Canada (SGC), is laser-focused on bringing this to the attention of Canadian companies.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) was one of the organizations affected. This June, people began tweeting screenshots of the school’s advertisements alongside headlines such as, “Here’s why there ought to be a cap on women studying science and maths.”

This particular headline appeared on a site called Breitbart News Network, which refers to itself as a syndicated news and opinion website. However, the organization has faced widespread criticism for its racist and sexist content.

Other Breitbart headlines have included: “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.” The site’s unaffiliated Canadian counterpart, Therebel.com, has also received criticism and calls from advertisers to remove their ads associated with disparaging headlines such as, “10 things I hate about Jews.”

A number of B.C. businesses’ ads have appeared on these sites, including Telus (TSE:T), Whistler Blackcomb and 1-800-GOT-JUNK?

The UBC swimming pool and School of Public Policy and Global Affairs unknowingly had their ads show up on these websites, according to a university spokeswoman. Twitter remarks including those from SGC informed the school of its ad placement and UBC had them removed immediately.

“It’s not the right fit for the brand,” said Susan Danard, director of public affairs at UBC. “It’s not a political statement at all, it’s an advertising decision.”

Now that the ads have been removed, Danard said she doesn’t believe the temporary placement of UBC’s advertisements on websites like Breitbart will negatively affect the university’s brand in the long term. She said that people, particularly the younger generation, understand and are sympathetic to the difficulties involved in digital marketing.

This sympathy is evident in the fact that advocacy groups have opted for the strategy of informing businesses where their digital ads are being used rather than publicly embarrassing the company and demanding removal of the ad from the offensive website.

In a Twitter exchange, SGC told Business in Vancouver that it was not boycotting any of the companies advertising on Breitbart and the Therebel.com. The anonymous group’s stated role isn’t to coerce businesses to remove their ads from these sites, but rather to inform Canadian firms that their ads are on these websites. What the companies do with this information is left to their discretion

However, because these websites are able to garner large audiences of targeted consumers, some companies are less concerned with their ads showing up on these sites if those are the target customers they are trying to attract, according to Darren Dahl, professor of marketing at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

“For some customer segments, the sites are who they are as individuals,” said Dahl. “You have to remember, not an insignificant percentage of the U.S. population voted for Donald Trump and go to these websites; they’re very successful. But it is a very specific segment of the population.”

He adds that this severely limits the scope of companies willing to advertise on sites like Breitbart and Therebel.com to those whose customer base heavily overlaps with those audiences.

Mass-market businesses, however, are the ones with the most difficult choice to make, Dahl said. Companies like Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), whose business models are based on selling to the entire consumer market, are in a lose-lose situation. These companies have to market to everyone and are put in a difficult position of having to either remove the ads and upset the segment of their customer base that enjoys these websites, or keep the ads and upset those who are offended.

“The problem is, it’s very difficult these days to get everybody as customers,” said Dahl. “Companies have to decide if it’s worth it to them to lose a chunk of their customers who are boycotting them and go after the customer segments that are using these types of sites.”

He said that, for these large mass-market companies that depend on selling to a diverse customer base, the decision to continue to advertise on these sites comes down to a simple question: Which decision will result in the least amount of economic loss? If a company thinks it has more to lose by staying on these sites than leaving them, that’s a business choice it must make.

Firms that have decided to remove their ads aren’t necessarily open to discussing or taking credit publicly for the decision for fear of further alienating customers whose views align with these websites’.

Enbridge recently removed its ads from Breitbart after they appeared next to an article that was contrary to the energy delivery company’s core values. Enbridge spokeswoman Suzanne Wilton said her company addressed this issue as part of its standard practice, but would not clarify what article caused the removal of advertising or if SGC pointed out the issue – likely, according to Dahl, because Enbridge doesn’t want to alienate customers who may agree with these sites.

While some companies, like 7-Eleven Canada, Sears Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery, respond directly to SGC tweets, others just quietly remove their ads.

The number of advertisers on Breitbart has dropped dramatically, according to MediaRadar, an advertising tracking firm. In March, 242 companies were advertising on the site; by May the number was down to 26. Todd Krizelman, co-founder and chief executive of MediaRadar, said the decline, in part, is due to the fact it is not an election year.

“Breitbart’s advertising has collapsed,” he said in a press release. “Most political sites are making less money today than they did a year ago because of the election cycle. But they’re not down 90%, I can guarantee that.”

Not all advertisers have left the website. Included among the businesses still willing to advertise on these sites are a Virgina strip club, a golf course in Spain and some right-wing political organizations.

In late August, Sleeping Giants, the U.S. counterpart to SGC, announced that almost 2,600 advertisers in total have pulled their advertisements since they started the campaign in November 2016. However, it is unclear whether advertiser boycotts spells the end for sites like Breitbart. After leaving the white house, Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Trump, returned to his position at the helm of Breitbart. Undeterred by falling advertising numbers, Bannon is looking towards expansion by partnering with Sinclair Broadcast Group, a local news media conglomerate that is working through the regulatory process to have access to 70% of U.S. households.

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