Love Breitbart or hate it, it’s impossible to be neutral about the site. Openly espousing Islamophobia and anti-globalism while it toys with white nationalism, it’s unapologetic about its approach to news and opinion. Regardless of one’s political stance and reaction to Breitbart, it seems like an odd place to find advertising from Amazon, a company that typically tries to avoid controversy.
Our research hasn’t shown any direct Amazon ad placements on Breitbart. But the company does continue to allow the site to use “native shopping ads” from its Amazon Associates program, which let third parties receive commissions and other bounties from advertising links. Amazon generates native ads dynamically, populating them with contextually derived products of interest, and labeling the unit “Ads by Amazon.” To a visitor’s eye, there’s no difference between native shopping ads and other advertisements from Google, Facebook, and other third-party ad networks. (On a recent visit, a Breitbart Amazon ad suggested four different books about Wells Fargo’s stagecoach era to me; on other pages, it plugs titles with a more direct connection to the Breitbart audience, such as Ann Coulter’s In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!)
The Audible audiobook service, a longtime division of Amazon, also shows up on Breitbart, with banner ads that, like the other Amazon ads on the site, can be generated through the Associates program.
Amazon maintains direct control over these native ads and the entire Associates program—which it says has over 900,000 participants—and has frequently cut sites off from this commission-based revenue for violations of its terms of service. The fact that it hasn’t blocked Breitbart has made it a target of Sleeping Giants, a group of anonymous individuals that claims (and third parties have at least partly verified) to have helped convince 3,800 advertisers—from Avis to Zynga—to drop Breitbart since its campaign started in late 2016. Amazon remains one of the most prominent firms to have ads or placements of any kind on the site, and the Seattle behemoth has never responded to inquiries from Sleeping Giants or reporters (including myself) on the topic, even after Sleeping Giants rented a billboard truck to drive around Seattle to ask them to “stop funding bigotry” on Breitbart.
— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) June 20, 2017
Across its various services, products, and affiliate relationships, Amazon prohibits a range of behavior. For instance, for third-party sellers on its platform, it refuses to allow products “that promote or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual or religious intolerance, or promote organizations with such views.” To participate in its Associates affiliate program, it notes sites are “unsuitable” if they “promote or contain materials or activity that is hateful, harassing, harmful, invasive of another’s privacy, abusive, or discriminatory (including on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, or age).”
Amazon won’t talk about Breitbart’s use of Associates ads, and that in itself is an implicit message. It indicates to those outside the company that it agrees Breitbart meets its standards for affiliates and native advertising. That remains true even if the ads are there, because Breitbart used self-serve tools rather than because Amazon chose to place them.
I agreed to speak with Sleeping Giants through its Facebook account without being provided the identities of individuals. The group told me that its members first encountered Breitbart in 2016, and were appalled. “We could not believe the type of racist and bigoted rhetoric and the virulent racism and sexism in their comment section,” they say. They were equally shocked that advertisers would pay to have their messages next to these articles and associated comments.
Without any intent to start a movement, Sleeping Giants set up a Twitter account and tweeted at the founder of a company whose ads appeared on Breitbart along with that person’s company. Within 30 minutes, that company said “that they had no idea their ads were appearing there,” Sleeping Giants says. Things snowballed from there, and the group has now over 210,000 followers between Twitter and Facebook, as well as independently run chapters in U.S. states and other countries.
The group denies that it advocates boycotting companies as a tactic, and it’s clear from its various feeds that it doesn’t directly suggest people stop buying the products of advertisers. “Free speech means that people can say whatever they want and be protected from their government, but it doesn’t entitle them to advertising dollars,” it says. Rather, it appears to be using exposure to provoke a response. It posts public messages about companies that advertise on Breitbart and encourages members to the do the same, tagging advertisers and showing their messages alongside egregious subject matter.
Based on the replies from company accounts, executives, and spokespeople, the vast majority of those whose ads appeared had no idea their ads were showing up on Breitbart or other sites that might not align with their moral, political, environmental, or other philosophies, left or right. YouTube has a similar huge backlash it’s currently coping with, because of the horrific, inappropriate, potentially illegal, and inexplicable nature of some of the videos it hosts, and from which it allows content producers to earn money on ads.
Web advertising at the moment is a particularly ugly ball of wax, metaphorically matted with detritus. Most editorial sites and nearly all other sites that post advertising rely either in small part or entirely on networks run by ad tech firms that use auction algorithms. These systems allow advertisers to specify demographic and other criteria and associated bids. Publishers with extra ad inventory—which is all publishers—may pick up salvage revenue of pennies per thousand page views (CPM). For publications, blogs, podcasts, or other sites that have tens of millions to hundreds of millions of views a month, those pennies add up, although they’re typically earned alongside much higher CPM rates from directly contracted advertising buys.
Really amazing to see @Amazon backdoor fund Breitbart's bad-faith attacks on them by placing @audible_com ads there, and that's on top of the racism and sexism they're supporting by advertising on Breitbart already.
— Strider ???? (@striderhlc) April 8, 2018
Advertisers who make programmatic ad buys lose control of where ads appear unless they put in place extremely tight guidelines. Few companies are public about how these buys go astray, but JPMorgan Chase was blunt to the New York Times in March 2017. JPMorgan had its ads appear on 400,000 sites, and then changed that abruptly to a hand-selected set of 5,000 sites. The company didn’t see much change in its costs or outcomes shortly afterwards, and its chief marketing officer confirmed in October to AdAge that although the company had increased its list of white-listed sites somewhat, the results remained on track. JPMorgan also developed its own in-house algorithm for YouTube placement, and shifted from 5 million channels to about 3,000.
Many advertisers have asked networks on which their ads appear to specifically blacklist Breitbart, while some networks have developed opt-in blacklists of political sites that engage in extreme examples of speech, and other categories that could cause a backlash. Amazon’s continued relationship with Breitbart can’t be a mere oversight; the company surely has a sizable number of staffers dealing with how its ads appear through its affiliate network, partners, and direct placements.
Breitbart didn’t reply to my request for comment. In previous remarks to other media, the site’s editor-in-chief has said Sleeping Giants’ characterization of the site is a “lie.” The company hasn’t responded in previous statements or interviews to claims of lost advertisers, including third-party advertising monitoring firms’ analyses, which appear to confirm Sleeping Giants’ claims about the effectiveness of its campaign. It’s also unclear how much of Breitbart’s budget relies on advertising, merchandise, and other revenue, given the deep pockets of the Mercer family of billionaires that owns part of the company.
It’s Not Just Amazon
Amazon may be the largest Breitbart advertiser to remain in place, but Sleeping Giants notes that three other companies have an impact as well. Google and Facebook’s advertising networks—AdSense and Facebook Audience Network—are among those delivering ads to Breitbart, and Disqus powers its commenting system. Sleeping Giants asserts that Breitbart routinely violates the terms of service of each of those companies’ products used on the site.
A Facebook spokesperson says that the company’s Audience Network, which powers ads on sites outside of Facebook’s own ecosystem, has strict community standards, and pointed to a post from last September by Carolyn Everson, its VP of global marketing solutions, about initiatives the company has under way. This includes providing a preview to advertisers of where their ads will run, and more reporting tools. Facebook’s spokesperson says that the company can’t address individual sites, but routinely removes ones that violate Audience Network policies.
Google provided a statement that noted that “Google has extensive policies that restrict publishers in our ad network from monetizing discriminatory, harmful, and disparaging content—and we enforce these policies vigorously.” As in the case of Facebook, a spokesperson says the firm doesn’t comment publicly on actions related to individual sites. The statement concluded, “We regularly review sites and content on their domains to ensure compliance.”
Mario Paganini, director of marketing at Disqus, says the company has cooperated with Sleeping Giants’ inquiry and mission, but he admits that Disqus’s last interaction with the group was in early 2017. Sleeping Giants says it’s been trying to re-engage the company since those conversations via Twitter and email without success, though Paganini says he’s unaware of any “direct” outreach.
Paganini says the firm has increasingly added feedback options to report content and websites that violate policy. “If we find that a site’s own published content or the comments that their moderators and employees post are in violation of our TOS, we opt to remove the site from Disqus,” he adds. Sleeping Giants disagrees vociferously, and routinely posts screen captures of Disqus forum posts from Breitbart that contain seemingly obvious violations of terms of service, some of which the protest group or others have reported and which remain in place.
Ultimately, Sleeping Giants’ complaint about Amazon has two goals. There’s the stated one—to have Amazon remove its advertising from Breitbart. But even if Amazon chooses to stay, Sleeping Giants would like it to go on the record about that decision. By not speaking, Amazon keeps itself above the fray and gains sales from its ads on a prominent site that doesn’t appear in harmony with its expressed corporate values. And with a major brand remaining in place, Breitbart retains some market credibility. Which means that as long as Amazon refuses to talk about its Breitbart relationship, Sleeping Giants is unlikely to shut up about it.
[Editor’s note: Article updated on 04/17/2018 to clarify the nature and recency of communications between Sleeping Giants and Disqus, as well as Sleeping Giants’ ongoing dissatisfaction with Disqus’s Breitbart presence.]