When it comes to firearms ads, there is theory at Google (which it does not hesitate to communicate about), and then there is practice (much less glorious).
Although it has pledged not to show ads for firearms for 20 years through its advertising platforms, Google has actually made a lot of money in recent years by running these kinds of ads in the tens of millions. . This is revealed by a thorough investigation published on ProPublicafor which more than 120 million ads from arms manufacturers were analyzed between March 9 and June 6, 2022.
An investigation all the more resounding as it comes out while the United States is still mourning the victims of two recent dramatic killings in a grocery store in New York and an elementary school in Texas. Sometimes, these advertisements have been broadcast without the publishers of websites using Google’s advertising tools even noticing. For example, the investigation refers to advertisements for weapons displayed on the pages of a site devoted to children’s toys, right in the middle of the stages of making a vegetarian dish or on the sidelines of an article on dramas adolescents from a portal dedicated to parents.
Prohibitions that are too easy to circumvent
To conduct the survey, digital strategy and analytics platforms such as AdBeat and SimilarWeb were used. They reveal advertising placements by tracing the display of campaigns. ProPublica contacted some of the sites on which firearms advertisements appeared, and most of their representatives were surprised at the extent to which they publicly pledged to refuse such advertisements. This is for example the case of MacRumors or of Playbuzz who have indicated that they want to look into this dysfunction.
If Google Ads seems to be supervising and enforcing the ban on firearms ads, this is obviously less the case with Google’s advertising auction platform on which third parties bid in real time. On this platform, tracking and monitoring campaigns that change hands in a split second would be much more permissive and explain how arms manufacturers still manage to promote their guns, rifles and ammunition on the internet so much.
“We don’t allow Google Ads to work with gun-related content”explained to ProPublica a Google spokesperson, Michael Aciman, before acknowledging: “While we provide tools for publishers to decide whether they want to accept third-party weapon ads, we do not prevent sites from serving these types of ads if they choose to do so.” In other words, it is quite possible to promote weapons via Google’s platforms, even if the company has been communicating for a long time about its choice to ban such campaigns. As for the appearance of the latter on sites which expressly refuse them, this would be explained by the defects of the campaign “retargeting” system.
Google would turn a blind eye
For Zach Edwards, founder of the digital advertising consulting firm Victory Medium, it is clear that web marketers know very well how to circumvent the safeguards of Google Ads to their advantage, and have been using for years its flaws in order to place ads for weapons or of a sexual nature. “The truth is that Google makes money by looking elsewhere”, he declares scathingly. Indeed, the US market for online firearms advertising is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars each year. As a reminder, there are more firearms than citizens in circulation in the country of Uncle Sam.