'Mistake' leads to Canadian Forces ad on far-right website by Dylan Robertson

Mar 6, 2018

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

The Canadian Forces have been running a recruitment ad on the American website Breitbart — a digital force in far-right politics that’s among U.S. President Donald Trump’s staunchest allies and one of Canada’s biggest critics.

The military indirectly paid Breitbart, in violation of Ottawa’s advertising rules, but has since pulled its ad off the site.

The ad popped up several times across Breitbart. In one case, it appeared in an article about a Italian mosque, weighing into that country’s Sunday election, which was accompanied by an October 2016 photo showing scores of Muslims praying next to the Colosseum in Rome.

The military took down the ad after the Free Press asked how it was spending taxpayer’s money. But the fact it appeared on a far-right website speaks to the unpredictable nature of online advertising, with Ottawa using a system that provides no idea of exactly where its ads will appear.

"A mistake was made," wrote the military’s head spokesman, Daniel Le Bouthillier, in a Monday email, explaining officials had accidentally not included the information about which websites to avoid when it commissioned a company to place the ads online.

Third-party companies often place ads on an assortment of websites, which often appear based on the internet user’s history of Google or Facebook interactions.

Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) maintains a blacklist of roughly 3,000 websites that are barred from holding the federal government’s digital advertisements, including from the military, even when they are posted through third-party companies.

The policy is guided by the public service’s Values and Ethics Code, which forbids racism and undermining democracy. The blacklist ranges from pornography to celebrity-gossip websites.

That list is maintained by Quebec-based marketing company Cossette, though Le Bouthillier said the advertisement that showed up on Breitbart involved another firm.

"In this particular instance, established protocol was not followed and we made an error as part of a ‘search-engine marketing’ advertising purchase, in which we neglected to inform a service provider of the need to ‘deselect’ the website in question," wrote Le Bouthillier wrote Monday morning.

"This has since been corrected, and we will be more vigilant going forward."

Activists have pressured governments and companies to stop advertising on far-right websites such as Breitbart and The Rebel, in order to starve them of revenue.

A member of the loosely organized group Sleeping Giants Canada said ads from federal departments occasionally show up on Breitbart, but far less than a year ago, and far more on The Rebel. The person, who communicated anonymously by written messages, said federal departments are quick to respond when alerted to these slip-ups.

Some companies have been reluctant to pull ads from Breitbart, which has called on readers to boycott companies that have pulled away.

Le Bouthillier said the ad appeared as part of a roughly $11,800 advertising contract that included designing the ads and doing analytics to see how they perform.

It’s currently impossible to narrow down the spending to ads that appeared on Breitbart. The two-month contract ends this month, targeting Canadians ages 18 to 35.

"A key medium to show young Canadians our diverse and exciting employment opportunities is through digital platforms, given the importance of reaching job-seeking and job-changing millennials. These typically include both social media and traditional websites."

Le Bouthillier said the Forces are trying to boost the number of reservists with summer jobs and 30-day enrollment processes. "People are our most important asset and the backbone of Canada’s military," he wrote.

Last month, PSPC revealed Ottawa had spent 55 per cent of its advertising budget on digital media in the fiscal year ending in March 2017, marking the first time it had spent more on internet ads than newspapers or television.

Of the $30.6 million spent on federal ads that year, $16.8 million went to online ads and social media, while Ottawa spent 2.6 million on radio commercials, $2.4 million on newspaper ads, $1 million on "out-of-home" ads such as billboards and cinema, and $500,000 on magazines.

Media advocacy groups such as Friends of Canadian Broadcasting have been pushing the federal government to incentivize companies to place ads on Canadian websites, by restricting tax breaks on advertisements to those that appear on media sites based in Canada.

The group’s spokesman, Jim Thompson, said about four-fifths of Canadian ad revenue goes to Facebook and Google, which post them to myriad sites based abroad.

He argued if Ottawa can create blacklists, it should be easy to determine which sites are based in Canada, and thus which qualify for tax breaks. "It’s sort of proof that aggregators… can pick and choose," he said.

Thompson’s group believes that would divert $250 million to $400 million to Canadian online media per year, and save Ottawa and the provinces as much as $5.5 billion in lost tax revenue.

© Winnipeg Free Press