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.
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.
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 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 general-interest websites.
Savage Arms and other firearms companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Google has spent years touting its refusal to accept gun ads. In 2004, co-founder Sergey Brin said the policy was a matter of ethics and a reflection of the company’s “don’t be evil” corporate value.
“We do not allow gun ads, and the gun lobby got upset about that,” he told Playboy magazine nearly two decades ago. “We do not try to put our sense of ethics into the search results, but we do when it comes to advertising.”
Today, the company’s “dangerous products or services policy” even bans ads for devices that “appear to discharge a projectile at high velocity”, such as paintball guns and BB guns.
“Our company has a strong culture and values, and we have chosen not to allow ads that promote products and services that are incompatible with these values,” the company said in a statement when it banned weapons-related items from Google Shopping in 2012.
Google’s dangerous products or services policy does, indeed, block sellers of guns, ammunition and many weapon accessories from using the Google Ads tool to place ads on Google properties or across the millions of websites and apps in the Google Display Network.
Weapons makers and sellers can use Google’s advertising tools and partner exchange system to place ads on firearm and outdoor enthusiast properties and on other sites that have not blocked weapons ads. This is where the vast majority of gun manufacturer ads end up – on sites with names like thefirearmblog.com, gundigest.com and survivalistboards.com.
Critically, gun makers also use Google’s tools to track the activity of visitors to their sites and target users with ads as they browse other websites and apps. The websites of gun makers such as Glock, Daniel Defense and Sig Sauer use Google products called Floodlight and Spotlight to facilitate this process, which is called retargeting.
Advertisers typically pay a premium for retargeting since those ads are more likely to lead to a purchase or other action. Google allows retargeting of gun ads when they are placed via one of its ad exchange partners and end up on a site that accepts weapons ads, according to Google’s Aciman.
But rather than block weapons ads by default in this scenario, Google requires publishers to opt out of receiving ads from Google partners for guns and other weapons or related accessories.
Edwards calls this Google’s “gun retargeting product for firearms manufacturers”. He said it is a major loophole that gun marketers can use to place ads on sites they would otherwise not have access to.
“Google purposefully built a loophole into all of their retargeting systems so that policy violations pour like a noncompliant firehose,” he said. “It has been a full decade or so of this retargeting loophole existing and Google is still acting dumbfounded that firearms manufacturers are having their retargeting ads show up on kids websites and other publishers.”
And even if the owner or publisher of a website or app opts out of receiving gun ads via retargeting, they still slip through. This is one reason that gun ads from companies such as Glock and Savage Arms ended up on general-interest websites even after publishers had opted out.
A spokesperson for Playbuzz.com, a popular site for quizzes and other entertainment content, told ProPublica it does not accept weapons ads of any kind. Yet Adbeat data shows a Glock ad with the message, “For Sport. For Fun. For Everyone,” appeared on a page filled with Chinese-language quizzes between late April and early May.
“We have started an investigation to determine if prohibited content appeared on Playbuzz.com and if so, which one of our demand partners (including Google) may have accidentally caused this error,” said Tammy Blythe Goodman, a spokesperson for the site’s parent company.
Also in May, an ad featuring two “slimline” pistols from Glock appeared on a feastingathome.com post about vegetarian recipes.
“I do not accept gun ads,” Sylvia Fountaine, a chef who runs the recipe site, told ProPublica.
Ads for Savage Arms rifles and shotguns generated roughly 4.6 million impressions on the website of Publishers Clearing House in the previous three months, according to Adbeat. Publishers Clearing House said it does not accept gun ads and blamed the automated, or programmatic, bidding process used by ad exchanges for the placements.
“Publishers Clearing House’s policy is not to accept or carry firearm advertisement,” said Christopher L Irving, the company’s vice president of consumer affairs. “The recent ads you referenced appear to have been placed programmatically without advance approval or review by Publishers Clearing House. Publishers Clearing House has restrictions in place that should have prevented such programmatic ads from appearing.”
A spokesperson for US News & World Report also said ad exchanges were likely to blame for the presence of Savage Arms ads on its site.
“US News does not accept firearm advertising,” the spokesperson said. “If an advertisement from a firearm or ammo company was displayed on our site it may have come through programmatically without our knowledge. We have taken steps to ensure that firearm ads will not appear on USNews.com to the best of our ability.”
The misplaced gun ads are just one way that the opaque and complex digital ads ecosystem, which Google dominates, causes ads to appear on websites and apps in ways that violate publisher or brand rules. In November, ProPublica revealed how Steve Bannon, ex-President Donald Trump’s indicted former adviser who made death threats against officials, found a way to keep earning money from Google Ads after being banned from YouTube.
Ads from Land Rover, Volvo, DoorDash, Staples and Harvard University appeared on his site, War Room. Spokespeople for Harvard, DoorDash and Land Rover told ProPublica the ads were a mistake and, like Glock, blamed ad partners for any errors.
Vexed by ads
Google has a history of failing to properly identify and block weapons ads. In 2019, shortly after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, The Verge reported that Google’s owned and operated ad network placed ads for high-capacity ammunition magazines. The company acknowledged it was a violation of its policy.
In April, a publisher complained on a Google support forum about gun ads showing up on their website. “Google is showing clear and obvious ads for guns on my site, with no way to remove them and no way to contact Google,” wrote the website owner, whose name was not listed.
The publisher said they had used the option in Google’s ad tools that was meant to allow them to opt out of accepting weapons ads from Google’s partners. The publisher provided screenshots of a gun ad and of their Google AdSense dashboard to back up the claim.
“I have done everything I am aware of to not allow deadly weapons to be advertised on my site, but Google AdSense is essentially forcing them on my site... and profiting off of the ads ... all while offering no help in removing them,” they wrote.
This article first appeared on ProPublica.