Canadian arts organizations aren’t generally seen as friendly toward the charged politics of Donald Trump, so this week a number of them were taken aback to learn their ads had shown up on Breitbart.com, the controversial news website that has been one of the president-elect’s staunchest supporters.
Mirvish Productions, the Stratford Festival, the children’s charity Plan International Canada, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission were all surprised after a Globe and Mail reporter contacted them to ask how their ads came to appear on the combative site, whose former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, was one of the architects of Mr. Trump’s campaign and is now his chief strategist.
Mr. Bannon has called Breitbart.com, which frequently traffics in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, “a platform for the alt-right,” using a term that is commonly equated with racism, fascism and white supremacy.
Most of the organizations have taken steps to remove the ads.
Other companies whose ads were seen on Breitbart.com include the Toronto Blue Jays, Nissan, Porter Airlines, American Express Canada, GoodLife Fitness, HSBC, Ross Petty Productions and Bank of Nova Scotia.
The ads’ appearance illuminates a vexing consequence of a growing method of ad buying on the Internet, in which companies often have no idea where their commercial messages are showing up or which publishers they are financially supporting. And it comes amid an exploding culture war spawned by Mr. Trump’s surprising vault into the White House. Last week, after Kellogg Co. announced it was pulling its ads from Breitbart, the site launched a boycott against the cereal giant.
The Canadian ads were placed through programmatic advertising, an automated process that marketers use to target users with specific demographic characteristics. Ads frequently follow users in their online journeys, so a user who visits a travel site may find hotel or airline ads showing up when they visit other sites.
“For the longest time, most [ads] used to be bought and planned by humans – by people and process and paper,” observed Andrew Casale, the president and CEO of Index Exchange, a New York-based ad technology company. Marketers using programmatic buying have the ability to conduct so-called whitelisting, compiling a list of sites where they want their ads to run. But, Mr. Casale said, “that curation process can be quite extensive, because the Internet is massive. So, the more common practice employed is blacklisting: ‘I will buy the entire Internet, so long as I’m reaching the audiences that I had identified as optimal for my product. And, in the event I run into content or publishers that are problematic, I will append them to a blacklist. So I’m kind of curating on the fly.’”
“This is a risk of programmatic advertising; you’re bidding on inventory based on a set of parameters; sometimes, that inventory or those parameters land you somewhere you’d rather not be,” said John Karastamatis, a spokesman with the Toronto-based theatre company Mirvish Productions, whose coming presentation of The Book of Mormon was advertised on Breitbart. “We did not know [about the placement],” he added. “We have now added [Breitbart] to our list of excluded sites for our advertising.”
AppNexus, a major programmatic ad exchange, announced last month it had banned Breitbart from its network after determining the site contained what it deemed “hate speech.”
The programmatic technology sometimes creates strange bedfellows. On Tuesday, the Breitbart home page featured a banner ad for The Hamilton Mixtape, an album of songs based on the blockbuster Broadway musical, which Mr. Trump had recently attacked after one of its actors personally addressed vice-president-elect Mike Pence at the conclusion of a performance.
An ad from the CRTC promoting the agency’s pick-and-pay TV initiative also showed up this week on the site. A CRTC spokesperson said Breitbart was on a list of 400 sites compiled by Cossette, the agency of record for Public Works and Government Services Canada, that co-ordinated the ad buy through Google’s AdWords program.
An executive with the Stratford Festival said that, although very few of its ads had been served on Breitbart, it has chosen to remove the site from its media buying mix. “Among a number of people in Canadian society, there’s a view that Breitbart is a site that’s contributing toward racial hatred,” said Antoni Cimolino, the festival’s artistic director. “As a theatre, the reason why we all do what we do here – we present plays to the highest standards possible, the great plays – because we want to promote human understanding, we want to promote empathy.”
Purchasing an ad is “a positive action,” he said. “So if there’s even the possibility that our advertising placement is countering our efforts [to encourage understanding], then we have to do at least the neutral thing, which is: Take a step back and decide not to proceed with it.”