Kellogg Co.'s decision to pull its ads from Breitbart.com led the right-wing site to promote a boycott of the cereal-maker, adding a new layer of risk to the practice of targeted online advertising. When ads trail consumers around the web, who's responsible for where they arrive?
Kellogg is not the only advertiser removing ads from Breitbart. But with its massive reach, the maker of Special K and Pop-Tarts is currently the focus of the site's backlash. A #DumpKelloggs petition started by Breibart in retaliation and negative stories about the food company were front and center on the site last week.
Kellogg, the country's 76th largest advertiser, said it decided to stay away from Breitbart after learning from consumers that its ads had been placed there, saying its decision had nothing to do with politics. "We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren't aligned with our values as set forth in our advertising guidelines," spokeswoman Kris Charles said in a statement. "This involves reviewing websites where ads could potentially be placed using filtering technology to assess the words and phrases that make up a site's content."
Breitbart's editor, Alexander Marlow, said Kellogg went too far making a statement about the values of the publication and its readers.
"Just make cereal. Make Pop-Tarts," Mr. Marlow said, referring to Kellogg. "No one is clamoring for Kellogg to weigh in on political items of the day."
Ever-defiant, the editor was ready to take on any other brands that followed Kellogg. "We're going to fight fire with fire, which is the traditional Breitbart style," Mr. Marlow said.
Kellogg pulling ad dollars would not financially impact the news company, which claims 45 million unique readers a month, Mr. Marlow said. "It wasn't like they were buying so many ads that it was going to be devastating to business," Mr. Marlow said.
Kellogg did not specify what exactly at Breitbart didn't align with its values, but critics have said its coverage includes racist, sexist and anti-Semitic views.
The conflict is the latest example of the digital ad community landing smack in the middle of the raging arguments over fake news and provocative news sites. Facing criticism after the election, the two biggest players, Google and Facebook, said that they would avoid using their ad technology to serve ads to fake news sites.
In late November, ad tech platform AppNexus became the first in the industry to call out Breitbart and refuse to deliver ads there.
"This is just the next iteration of brand safety, except there's a real nuance to it," said Rob Norman, global chief digital officer at GroupM, the largest buyer of advertising. "There is a wider issue on the kind of 'alt-right' side of the equation as to what people consider to be unacceptable. We're dancing on an interesting line between people's judgment and the First Amendment."
The issue is not as clear-cut as the red flags raised when ads wind up on sites that may include piracy, porn, fraud, hate speech or even fake news. Brietbart is "a one-size-fits-most area, and the ones that feel that they should take some action will take the action discreetly and in a measured way," Mr. Norman said, contrasting it with one-size-fits-all situations like porn sites.
Tech companies that make up the backbone of online digital advertising, including turnkey services such as Google's AdSense, are many websites' lifeline to digital ad revenue. The sites plug the systems in, start serving the ads that the systems supply and get paid for their inventory. For advertisers using those systems, appearing on a site can be just a function of following the consumers they desire.
BMW, whose presence on Breitbart was called out by critics, said it hadn't been buying ads from Breitbart directly. "Only individuals who specifically expressed an interest in our brand and then visited the Breitbart site would have received an ad from BMW," the marketer said. "We continuously review sites where individually targeted ads are available and Breitbart is no longer among them."
Nissan gave the following explanation: "Our advertising is intended to raise awareness of our products with consumers, not to make political commentary," Nissan North America said in a statement. "Nissan online advertising is behaviorally targeted rather than placed on specific sites. Ads seen on a particular website are served up to readers based on their own online search patterns."
Nor are all ad-tech companies eager to play content cop. Google declined comment for this story, but as of Friday it was still among those delivering ads to Breitbart.com. AdSense policies disqualify sites if they break rules around appropriate content, but Breitbart does not appear to be in violation. Brands that use Google's ad management tools can control where their ads appear.
The Rubicon Project has continued to work with Breitbart. But it lets brands choose where their ads run.
"Rubicon Project employs very clear quality and content guidelines for what is allowed within our marketplace, banning anything illegal, pornographic or designed to incite violence, discrimination or harassment," a spokesman said in an emailed statement. "However, we do not take editorial censorship positions on content points of view."
— With reporting by E.J. Schultz