Feds, businesses pull ads from Breitbart after pressure from citizen's group

Steve Bannon, a top adviser to U.S. President Trump, is an original board member and former head of Breitbart News, a website he has called a ‘platform for the alt-right.’ More than 800 organizations, including Canada’s federal government, have halted their ads from appearing on the site. Photo from Getty Images

The Government of Canada, Canadian companies and other organizations have come under scrutiny in recent days for running online ads on controversial website Breitbart News, whose former executive chairman Steve Bannon is Donald Trump’s top advisor.

On Wednesday, it was reported that Public Services and Procurement Canada — which handles the federal government’s media purchases — nixed Breitbart from its list of approved sites for federal advertising after The Globe and Mail was informed by a grassroots campaign that the ads ran on the site, which Bannon has called “a platform for the alt-right.”

The federal agency didn’t immediately respond to Yahoo Canada News’ request for a comment, but a spokesperson told the Globe that Breitbart didn’t align with the government’s code of values and ethics and that it “does not support advertising on websites that are deemed to incite racial hatred, discrimination or the subversion of Canada’s democratic system of government.”

Update (Feb. 3): In an emailed response, the department said Breitbart was removed from the list in December. “However, the removal was not consistently applied in a timely manner by the Agency of Record and its supplier,” Nicolas Boucher said. “The error has been corrected.”

The Canadian government isn’t alone in being shamed into action by Sleeping Giants, a U.S. citizen’s group. It began a campaign targeting Breitbart, known for sensational stories such as “Racist, Pro-Nazi roots of Planned Parenthood revealed,” after the U.S. election.

According to its Facebook and Twitter accounts, the group’s strategy is simple: “Sleeping Giants is dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic news sites by stopping their ad dollars.”

Sleeping Giants explains on Facebook that because of programmatic advertising, which is basically software purchasing digital advertisements, “many companies don’t even know they are appearing on these sites. We inform them and help them with advice on taking their ads down.”

The group encourages its “Giants” members to visit Breitbart, take a screenshot of an ad next to some of the site’s content and tweet the image to the Twitter handle of the company featured in the ad.

The efforts have been effective. Sleeping Giants said Thursday about 850 companies have pulled their ads from Breitbart.

“We are pleased to see that so many companies are making the decision not to financially support a site that calls itself the platform for the alt-right,” a founding member told Yahoo Canada News during a Facebook instant messaging exchange. The person declined a phone interview and requested anonymity, saying group members work in the digital advertising space.

The group said it doesn’t know how much its campaign has cost Breitbart but “in programmatic advertising, the fewer advertisers that are bidding for the space, particularly the larger ones, the lower the cost for the space.”

“If you look at Breitbart now, you can see that there are a very few large companies left and then there are much smaller, more local companies that are on there,” the person said. “Clearly the vast middle ground, with both very large and medium-sized companies, have all decided that they didn’t want to support this site’s inflammatory rhetoric with their ad dollars.”

In Canada, they include the Canadian Diabetes Association, Canadian Tire, Edmonton Tourism, Greenpeace, Harry Rosen, Hootsuite, Lululemon, McGill University, MEC, National Bank of Canada, Porter Airlines, SaskTel, Scotiabank, Swiss Chalet, Université Laval and the University of British Columbia.

Last Thursday, UBC stopped advertising about its aquatic centre on Breitbart after a Vancouver strategist with corporate watchdog, SumOfUs, posted to Twitter asking the school to pull the advertising plug. McGill and the University of Montreal followed suit the next day after being put on the spot by SumOfUs on Twitter.

And the lobbying is far from over as the below tweet to Air Canada shows.

SumOfUs’s Emma Pullman, who said the airline has yet to respond, believes more companies will stop advertising on Breitbart.

“I think that this is just the beginning,” she told Yahoo Canada News. “I’ve likened it to a snowball being built on the top of a hill and it’s just starting to roll and it’s picking up more snow as it goes.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Bannon’s role at Breitbart News. He is an original board member and former head of the organization, not the co-founder.