A word from our digital marketing team about ad algorithms and ad placements on offensive sites

Graphic depicting digital ads, search bars, and online imagery

How ad-buying works, how websites make money from ads, and how we try to ensure our ads don’t appear where they shouldn’t

I’m Max, Octopus Energy’s head of digital marketing. We’re trying to spread the word all around the UK about our fairly-priced green energy, so we advertise in a lot of places – from billboards at bus stops to post offices to television ads, and of course, through digital ads online. From time to time, someone may notice one of our ads appearing on a website which may be considered to include offensive content or hate speech. Like this:

We usually respond quickly to block sites from hosting our advertising when they’re flagged to us – so please get in contact if you see anything like this and we’ll be on it immediately. We don’t have the bandwidth, nor necessarily access to all the information, to decide which sites are and aren’t appropriate, so we block by default once they’re reported (it’s much worse for an ad to appear where it shouldn’t than for it to not appear somewhere).

There’s a lot of confusion about how digital ads work (for example, a lot of people don’t know that we don’t usually choose individual sites to advertise on) so I've recorded a quick explainer:

How companies buy digital ads

The majority of ads don’t target specific websites. Instead, companies like us buy ad space from big ad networks (like Google) who use smart algorithms to choose who the ads are shown to based on different criteria. These networks create lists of people to show ads to based on their interests (like “green energy enthusiasts”).

That means our ads mostly get shown to people who have been on our website. Other times, the ad network’s algorithms might show ads to people who have an affinity for a particular subject, or person, related to what we do.

Say, for example, Google learned that Sir David Attenborough’s twitter followers were all green energy enthusiasts. They might suggest that we show ads to people who are interested in Sir David. It’s little like when you're shopping online and you get the section that says people who bought this also bought this – ‘people who like Sir David also like green energy’.

That means if an ad network has seen you on a site about Sir David, you’ll be shown related ads on all manner of websites you visit.

This is the case if you’re just looking at a local newspaper, a hobby site, or even if you’re going all over the internet looking at hate sites.

Ad platforms like Google’s will choose which ads to show on any given pageview, which means we are not selecting where our ads appear. However, Google, and others, usually have special filters so businesses can stop their ads appearing on sites with violent or sexual content – but nothing to filter hate speech specifically – so we take a proactive approach wherever we can to block particular sites.

What we do to prevent our ads appearing on offensive sites

  1. Use all available filters when buying ads to block sites with offensive content. BUT, some sites slip through the cracks of these third party algorithms.
  2. ‘Exclude’ individual sites from being able to host our ads. Our team does work to exclude sites that we might not want to appear on. But there are, sadly, a LOT of hateful sites out there. Our team is here round-the-clock to pick up bad ad placements anyone points out and add the site to a blocked list
  3. But we do believe the best solution is one that can only be fulfilled by the ad networks themselves...so we encourage Google and ad networks to create a special filter for sites with hate speech.

Sometimes, what's offensive can be very subjective. What appears to be hate to one person is reasonable to someone else. As a business, we’re not best equipped to be the arbiters of what should be considered hate speech, and we won’t get into the weeds of debating the individual merits or problems of each site either.

We’d just prefer not to have our ads anywhere that hurts or offends people, so we err on the side of excluding sites flagged to us.

You may wonder if this is us essentially backing censorship. It’s not - just like some brands wouldn’t advertise during adult shows on TV, others may find these slots attractive. Similarly, we choose to block our ads from sites which aren’t compatible with our values, or which cause offence to many people, but we don’t campaign against those sites. We simply don’t advertise on them.

How do websites make money from hosting our ads?

The short answer is, these pages get money every time you visit the site. You might assume the site gets a bit of money every time someone clicks on one of the ads. That's wrong. The sites usually get paid for every VIEW – so just by visiting the website, you're giving them money.

So, how can you stop funding hate?

Don’t visit the website. Our ads only appear there if someone who matches the demographics, interests, etc of our customers visit the page, and by ‘viewing’ the page yourself, you’re giving a little bit of ad money directly to the page owners.

Don’t give sites a massive platform. Using social media accounts to screenshot a certain site is a great way to draw attention to the issue of advertising in offensive places. But equally, just be aware that every time you publish a link to point to content you don’t like on sites you don’t like you may drive visitors, and thus revenue.

Absolutely call out companies to let them know ads are appearing on a hate site - but remember most brands will not be doing it intentionally, and may even take significant steps to avoid it (as Octopus Energy do) - so maybe give them the benefit of the doubt in the first instance.

We are always here and willing to add sites to our ever-growing ‘block list’ – but it might be better to DM or email us rather than giving hate sites more of a platform and potentially 100s or 1000s more page visits.

Spotted an Octopus ad on an offensive webpage, youtube video or anywhere else you think it shouldn't be? Email hello@octopus.energy or contact us on Facebook or Twitter with a screenshot and link and we'll look into it.

Published on 17th June 2020 by:

image of Max McShane

Max McShane

Head of Digital Marketing

Hey I'm Constantine, welcome to Octopus Energy!