The vast majority of firms that facilitate online advertising have policies that prohibit them from working with arms manufacturers. But these policies are, in some cases, not effectively enforced.
In the wake of three mass shootings in short succession in the U.S., Campaign US investigated whether ad tech firms are, inadvertently or not, helping to monetize the arms industry.
Criteo’s ad tracker tag was discovered on the website of Italian firearms manufacturer Beretta, among the largest sellers of guns in the U.S. While Beretta does not carry advertising on its website, Criteo’s technology would enable the company to track people who visited its website and advertise to them elsewhere on the web.
Criteo confirmed to Campaign US that it provided retargeting services to Beretta. The ad tech firm said the ads it displayed from Beretta were limited to non-firearm products. Still, these violated Criteo’s advertising guidelines, which prohibit ads that display anything related to firearms and weapons, including accessories.
As a result of the investigation, Criteo told Campaign it was ending its relationship with Beretta: “We completed the investigation of the advertiser. We don’t serve ads on Beretta.com but can confirm Beretta purchased advertising services through Criteo to promote their non-firearm products elsewhere across the web. We found that some of the products they promoted — while not firearms — violated our advertising policies. As a result, we stopped all campaigns and are removing them from our platform.”
Nandini Jammi, co-founder of ad tech watchdog Check My Ads, believes that Criteo’s relationship with Beretta demonstrates that the company “has not invested in adequate vetting processes” and “has lost control of its network.”
Check My Ads routinely exposes ad tech firms for violating their own policies by supporting arms manufacturers, disinformation or publishers of hate speech. These violations arise, Jammi said, because vetting processes in the adtech industry “are weak and rarely enforced unless there's external pressure.”
“Ad tech companies are simply cutting corners because enforcing guidelines cuts into their bottom line, even if it comes at the expense of their clients,” Jammi said. “It's a choice not to enforce vetting processes so I consider them 100% complicit.”
But programmatic advertising operates at such a scale that individually vetting partners becomes “impractical,” according to Ana Milicevic, principal and cofounder of Sparrow Advisers.
Milicevic suggested the industry could restrict weapons advertising to certain age demographics as is required in liquor advertising.
“We should also look to other countries for inspiration on how to regulate guns (and I don't just mean advertising here),” Milicevic added.
To provide adequate time to vet ads, Matt Prohaska, CEO and principal of data and marketing consulting practice Prohaska Consulting, suggested the ad industry should implement waiting periods for arms companies to buy and retarget ads.
In addition, advertisers should weed out partners that are monetizing the arms industry, Prohaska said. “Buyers should add to their blocklists publishers that take money from inappropriate gun makers and social publishers that allow the easy dissemination of violent criminal behavior,” he said.
Campaign also found a variety of Google’s ad products tagged on the websites of at least eight major arms manufacturers, including Beretta, Daniel Defense, Glock, Remington, Savage Arms, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer and Mossberg. A gun made by Daniel Defense was used in the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. One of Remington’s weapons was allegedly used in the May 14 shooting in Buffalo, New York.
These websites contained tags for Google’s ad serving and retargeting products including DoubleClick, Google AdWords Conversion, Google Dynamic Retargeting and Google Adsense.
The presence of the tags does not mean that the arms manufacturers were successful in running ads or retargeting users using Google’s products. Google does not control companies’ ability to set up accounts for its services, much like anyone over the age of 13 can set up a YouTube account.
Google does control, however, who can monetize using its services. A Google spokesperson claimed that the company would block Google Ads from being served on the arms manufacturers’ websites, in compliance with its publisher policies that restrict serving ads on gun-related content. The search giant also has policies which prohibit the promotion of guns across its services. The arms manufacturers can only hope their attempts to monetize slip through Google’s detection systems.
Campaign contacted Beretta.com for this story but did not hear back by time of publication.