Hardly anyone paid attention last November when a strangely named Twitter account, Sleeping Giants, sent its first tweet into the digisphere. “Are you aware that you’re advertising on Breitbart, the alt-right’s biggest champion, today?” read the tweet, aimed at a consumer lending outfit called Social Finance. “Are you supporting them publicly?”
Within 30 minutes, Social Finance replied, tweeting that it would stop running ads on Breitbart.
It was, it turns out, the start of an odd, and oddly effective, social media campaign against Breitbart, the influential conservative news site headed by Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former campaign chairman and ex-chief White House strategist.
Sleeping Giants’ basic approach is to make Breitbart’s advertisers aware that they are, in fact, Breitbart advertisers. Many apparently don’t know this, given that Web ads are often bought through third-party brokers, such as Google and Facebook. The brokers then distribute them to a network of websites according to algorithms that seek a specific target audience (say, young men) or a set number of impressions.
So when an ad appears on Breitbart, Sleeping Giants or one of its 109,000 Twitter followers and 35,000 Facebook followers flag the advertiser, often accompanied by an image of the sponsors’ ad next to a Breitbart story.
The other day, for example, a Sleeping Giants follower tweeted at Country Inns, informing the hotel chain that it was advertising on “the racist Breitbart site.” Within a day, the company tweeted back: “Thank you for your concern. . . . We have added Breitbart to our blacklist of ads.”
This apparently happens a lot. Sleeping Giants’ database lists nearly 2,900 companies that have declared Breitbart off limits since November — an astonishing figure, though one hard to confirm because some ad buys recur. Nevertheless, it’s not an implausible number. During one 24-hour period, advertisers such as the air-conditioning manufacturer Rheem, transport operator Caltrain, Sutter Health Plus and Rose Medical Center of Denver all publicly acknowledged that they had blacklisted Breitbart in response to a Sleeping Giants tweet.
The group decided to single out Breitbart almost by happenstance. “It really happened as a reaction to Steve Bannon’s rise,” the spokesman says. “We weren’t familiar with Breitbart at the time and were obviously pretty shocked at the articles. . . . To be honest, we weren’t familiar with [other conservative] sites,” so those weren’t even considered, he says.
The group has raised about $1,500 from T-shirt sales and about $7,000 from an online fundraiser, but it otherwise operates with little overhead, he notes. “If I had a nickel for every claim that we’re being funded by [liberal billionaire activist] George Soros, I’d be well off. It’s crazy. There’s not much need for funding. Tweeting is free.”
Two points here:
- People have been writing to advertisers about where their ads appear since Madison Avenue was a cow path.
- The fact that the big players in the online advertising market are this cavalier with how they serve up ads. If you buy ads, be aware of this, or maybe beware of this; your choice.
I think that I might know someone who knows who these guys are.