Google doesn’t accept gun ads – but it does profit from them

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For roughly two decades, Google has boasted that it does not accept gun ads, a reflection of its values and culture. But a ProPublica analysis shows that before and after mass shootings in May at a New York grocery store and a Texas elementary school, millions of ads from the some of the nation’s largest firearms makers flowed through Google’s ad systems and onto websites and apps – in some cases without the site or app owners’ knowledge and in violation of their policies.

Ads from gunmaker Savage Arms, for example, popped up on the site Baby Games, amid brightly colored games for children, and on an article about “How to Handle Teen Drama” on the Parent Influence website. Ads for Glock pistols loaded on a recipe site’s list of the “50 Best Vegetarian Recipes!” as well as on the quiz site Playbuzz, on the online Merriam-Webster dictionary and alongside stories in The Denver Post, according to Adbeat, which aggregates data about web and mobile digital ads.

Ads for guns also showed up on Britannica, the media site Heavy, the employer review site Glassdoor, and on MacRumors, US News & World Report, Publishers Clearing House and Ultimate Classic Rock.

A ProPublica analysis found that 15 of the largest firearms sellers in the United States – including Daniel Defense, the company that made the AR-15 used by the Uvalde, Texas, gunman – used Google’s systems to place ads that generated over 120 million impressions, a measurement roughly equivalent to an ad being shown to one person, between March 9 and June 6. And every time an ad was viewed by a user, Google earned a small fee.

Some of the ads likely violated Google’s rules, but the vast majority were placed thanks to longstanding loopholes in the company’s ban on ads for guns, related weapons and ammunition. The loopholes allow the company to publicly claim it has a no-gun policy while facilitating the placement of – and earning money from – more than 100 million gun ads each year. The ad data was gathered using Adbeat and Similarweb, a digital intelligence platform.

The gun ads came as a surprise to representatives of some of the sites where they appeared. Spokespeople for Heavy, The Denver Post, US News & World Report, Publishers Clearing House and MacRumors said they do not accept gun or weapons ads and the ads should not have appeared. Playbuzz said it was launching an internal investigation after being contacted by ProPublica. The owners of other sites did not respond to requests for comment.

Double standards

If this all sounds confusing – how can Google say it does not accept gun ads but allow them to appear? – it is, perhaps by design.

In reality, Google has two sets of rules for weapons ads. One is for Google Ads, the ads that run on the company’s own ad network and on properties it owns, such as YouTube or Google.com search results. The other is for ads sold by partners, such as ad exchanges, that place ads using Google’s systems.

Ad exchanges enable digital ads to be bought and sold via an automated bidding process. For these partners, Google operates as an “exchange of exchanges” – in which it facilitates the buying and selling of ads on other exchanges – and takes a cut of each ad transaction. Partner exchanges are guided by a set of more permissive rules that allow gun ads to flow through Google’s ad systems.

“We do not allow Google Ads to run alongside firearms content, nor do we allow Google Ads that promote weapons,” said Google spokesperson Michael Aciman. “While we offer tools for publishers to decide if they want to accept third party ads for weapons, we do not block sites from running these types of ads if they choose to do so. As always, we work diligently to provide users with a safe experience and ensure that ads comply with all applicable policies.”

Firearms sellers also use Google tools and partners to target ads at people as they browse the web – a process known as retargeting – at times resulting in gun ads appearing on sites where they are prohibited. After visiting the websites of gun manufacturers, for example, a ProPublica reporter was shown Brownells Armory’s ads for a Smith & Wesson handgun and gun accessories when visiting Ultimate Classic Rock and was served ads for tactical vests and gun accessories on Baby Games.

The tactical vests and gun accessories ads appeared on the page for “Royal Family Christmas Preparation,” the same URL that Adbeat recorded showing a Savage Arms ad in late March. (Google only allows ads for gun accessories “that increase the safety of a gun”.)

In both cases, data examined by ProPublica shows the Brownells Armory ads were delivered using Google’s ad systems. Brownells did not respond to a request for comment.

Ads for tactical vests and gun accessories were served to a ProPublica reporter on the website Baby Games. Photo credit: Screenshot by ProPublica

Zach Edwards, a security researcher and founder of digital ads consultancy Victory Medium, said canny marketers have for years used Google’s policy loopholes to place ads for restricted items such as guns and sexual products.

“The truth of it is Google makes money while looking the other way,” he said.

He compared Google’s approach to a mullet: “Google has corporate policies in the front and exchange-of-exchange internet chaos in the back.”

The placement of gun and ammunition ads is especially sensitive as the country reels from a series of mass shootings in recent weeks, including the 10 killed at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket and the 19 children and two adults gunned down in Uvalde, Texas. The shootings resulted in renewed calls for gun control legislation.

Google’s policy

Google stands to benefit from the millions of dollars that gun safety and gun rights groups are spending on marketing to sway politicians and voters. While Google’s policies ban gun ads, they allow ads about guns and Second Amendment issues to run across its ad network without restrictions, according to Aciman.

The National Rifle Association has announced a $2 million ad campaign targeting gun safety proposals. And national gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety said it will spend $400,000 on a campaign “urging Senators to take action and reach a deal on gun safety measures”.

Most TV networks, magazines and newspapers banned gun ads years ago, which caused firearms companies to seek out digital marketing opportunities, said Lisa Jordan, a professor at Drew University and the lead author of a 2020 research paper about gun ads on social media.

“For firearms companies, it was this transformation following a big clampdown in access to ads,” she said. “The internet makes it so much easier.”

At least one firearm maker said it was not to blame if its ads turn up on sites that do not want them. Glock, whose ads appeared on several general-interest websites in the past three months, said in a statement that it has “very strict guidelines in place for its advertisements including demographic, content and site level restrictions”.

“However, Glock does not control the ad exchange for any content placement that may be visible within Google,” said spokesperson Brandie Collins. “We suggest that you contact Google for any further information in this regard.”

She did not respond to follow-up questions to clarify which Google partner ad exchanges Glock works with and whether the company had intended to place ads on…



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