Awkward juxtapositions in ad placement are nothing new. Sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr are filled with amusing and shocking fails, not just from the web, but billboards, magazines and newspapers too. But a recent case has thrown a spotlight on how potentially embarrassing and damaging it can be for brands to have their ads positioned next to unsavoury or illegal content.

Towards the end of May an influential campaign called FBrape began, pressuring several household-name companies such as Dove, Nationwide and Nissan to pull their ads from Facebook in protest at some particularly unpleasant pages advocating violence against women, and other forms of misogyny. Most of the brands reacted fast, suspending their marketing campaigns on the social media site, while others such as Unilever company Dove chose to tough it out instead, requesting Facebook remove the pages while reviewing their ad placement strategy.

Coming during a period of intense public debate over trolling on Twitter and other sites, and other campaigns against sexual material appearing in newspapers and magazines in view of children, it’s no surprise that the campaign went viral very quickly. And it has highlighted the inherent reputational risk of targeted advertising on websites where the content is not subject to the kind of rigorous policing found on traditional media.

Blame Game

There are obvious tangible benefits in targeted ad placement – for what constitutes a fairly small outlay, a brand can reach out to huge numbers of potential customers, and on Facebook, where such a huge amount of valuable data is shared by users, the scope for effective contact is magnified. And yet, as we have seen, when something does go wrong, as it inevitably will do when technology is moving forwards to fast, consumers lay the blame at the feet of the brands rather than the mechanisms behind it.

Appropriate Responses

So where does this leave companies that need to maximise their online exposure? Probably the most important weapon they can have in their arsenal is an effective back-up plan to mitigate any unexpected consequences. Speed of response is vital, so if they become aware of inappropriate placement they can issue a pre-agreed statement while working with the site to get their ad quickly taken down.

It’s also vital that marketers get a clear understanding of how targeted advertising actually works. In many cases it seems they don’t fully understand the limitations and risks involved, leaving it in the hands of agencies.

Lessons to be learned

Like Twitter, Facebook has now taken a big hit and will no doubt be under significant pressure to both develop a means of keeping ads clear of such inflammatory content in future, and ensure the content itself is quickly removed. But 6 billion active users and no major competitors on the horizon means there’s no danger of a substantial drop in ad revenue at this stage. For the other companies affected however, this needs to be, and no doubt will be, taken as a yellow card and warning that the web is an unpredictable marketplace.