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Dangerous Advertising on the Internet and the Question of Free Speech

We are living in the beginning of the Golden Age of the collusion information and technology…

Given the strength, popularity and overall reach of Google AdWords and social media networks, it should not be surprising that there is a vast array of products and opinions available to be pursued at a digital media user’s whim. From our perspective as marketers and advertisers, technology and the formats favored by today’s consumers; information and the formats in which they are displayed means constant and never-ending access to a potential customer’s screens – and eyeballs.

With this endless amount of content and products at one’s fingertips comes what we were told was the promise of our digital age – anything we want, anywhere, anytime. However, as to be expected in our current climate – more tribalistic, fractured and segmented by beliefs and loyalties than ever, it should not be surprising that the very tools meant to connect, provide for and inform us are being used as a means of spreading hate-filled speech and misinformation…

According to CBS News and the investigative website ProPublica, it’s possible to target ads to seemingly any demographic — even Nazis and self-described “Jew haters” — on a global platform[1]. The availability of Facebook, Google and other digital media advertising formats is due largely to the open nature of being able to place an ad in the first place. Essentially, anyone can place an ad online, provided they are willing to provide some cursory contact information and a form of payment.

This of course, is a two-edged sword – on one side, merchants and advertisers of all sizes have what is essentially, a level playing field with respect to the number of clients they can reach via social media and search queries – limited only by budget. On the other, more sinister side, a person whose thoughts and desire for commentary or products that may have existed outside of his reach due to the standards of his community or desire to not want to be publically associated with either speech or items now can find hate speech, offensive & derogatory books and literature in addition to other items of paraphernalia without having to necessarily “out” himself as a member of such beliefs.

We have seen and heard the stories of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda being particularly adept at using social media and networks to engage and influence people with no known connection to their groups before. As useful as a tool as search engines and social media are for advertisers to encourage sales and use of their products, such online instruments are proving equally as affective as a means of disseminating hate and provoking followers to attack and harm innocents.


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Now, more recently, Facebook has had to admit more than 3,000 ads shared on its platform and viewed by millions were purchased and placed by Russians posing as Americans with the sole purpose of misleading and misinforming the public[2]. Their goal was to create dissention and chaos during the 2016  presidential election. It is widely assumed in hindsight, these charlatans achieved their goals.

Which brings us to what, perhaps is the most logical question – “How do we stop this?

Though the eyes of a marketer / advertiser, this should be a frightening question. First and foremost, this should be a question of free speech. According to Annotation 17 of the First Amendment, in recent years, the courts treatment of “commercial speech” has undergone a transformation, from total protection under the First Amendment to qualified protection (read: unwarranted regulation).[3] It should be noted the relegations that are in place are largely meant to protect the consumer from “deceptive” practices. Furthermore, “a state must justify restrictions on truthful, nonmisleading commercial speech by demonstrating that its actions “directly advance” a substantial state interest and are no more extensive than necessary to serve that interest.”[4]

A US Supreme Court opinion describes its interpretation of commercial free speech as, “The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.”[5]

What greater forum in modern times to celebrate free speech, totally protected or not exists outside of the internet? In this writer’s mind, the real question is “Where do we draw the line?” If we allow advertising to be censored on moral, religious or decency grounds, how long does our free market continue to be “free”? However, if we do not intercede and allow online advertising to be run like the Wild West, we open the door for our information to be corrupted by bad actors and potentially allow for our media and other forms of commercial expression to become more strangled by a state acting in the consumers “best interests”.

Today, we have a sitting president who is widely assumed to be enriching himself and his family by using the power of his position to advertise and market his many properties and business ventures to lobbyists and foreign dignitaries.[6] This fact alone should start a national conversation pertaining to kleptocracy and the utilization of advertising by elected officials with ties to their own corporations with the power to limit media and/or access to advertising to further their own cause and/or enterprise.

Imagine being the owner of a business or corporation who has the ire of an administration. In this day of “fake news” and “fake media”, given what has transpired with respect to the aforementioned actions of Russian imposters, how much longer is it before we start hearing the cries of politicians shouting “fake ads!”?

Perhaps “fake ads” have existed a lot longer than most people realize or are able to admit. These are not the snake oil ads of yore – dangerous concoctions sold by a seemingly well-intentioned doctor angling to make a quick buck selling worthless remedies to unsuspecting dupes. Rather, ads bought and produced by PACs (Political Action Committees) to disparage rivals and encourage action and/or votes. These “political hit ads” have only increased in recent years and elections, given the startling power provided to corporations under the auspices of Citizens United.

When does an ad become dangerous? When it runs afoul of the decency, norms and morals of Americans, or it poses a threat to the government and its administration? Clearly, there are items that cannot be advertised because the product itself is illegal – federally restricted guns and drugs, for example. But given that corporations can easily be assumed to have more influence now than ever before on the American government and the head of the executive branch is himself a businessman who has unabashedly kept his ties to his personal business empire, how much longer can we assume further regulation of ads are done purely in the public’s “best interests”?

Are we, as Americans comfortable with the idea of the government telling us what we can see ads for? Do we risk opening Pandora’s Box by allowing the government the ability to further censor what we can buy from whom? These are questions we, as a society will have to figure out as online media becomes a larger part of our lives and corporations influence over Washington as well as its federal agencies looms.


By Curt Sudduth, PPC Coordinator






[5] Edenfield v. Fane, 123 L. Ed. 2d 543, 113 S. Ct. 1792, 1798 (1993)


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