Why a Mike Johnson campaign ad is running on an Iranian website

Johnson and Jeffries did not respond to requests for comment.

Because their advertising campaigns are run through Google, the candidates would have no way of knowing their names were appearing on sanctioned websites. Google said no money was routed to the sites.

Since the researchers began to circulate their report privately last week, Google has removed the advertising capabilities on many of the websites discovered by Adalytics.

The embarrassing placement is the result of the way Google’s search-driven ads work. When advertisers launch an ad campaign based on Google Search, they’re paying for their ads to pop up next to search results on the tech giant’s platform. If you search for “Democrat” on Google’s main page, for example, an ad for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee could pop up.

But Google also serves those ads up to third-party websites with a Google-powered search bar embedded on their pages. The search bar is available for free to anyone building a website, including Iranian and Russian companies.

When POLITICO searched for “Democrat” on an Iranian website, the first result that returned was an ad for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, explicitly stating that the ad was paid for by the organization.

A search for “Republican” on the same page returned an ad for Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, paid for by her advocacy group Stand For America.

Neither Haley’s campaign nor the DCCC responded to requests for comment.

According to a Google spokesperson, the company didn’t pay any of the sanctioned websites or adult content pages. Google has policies to prevent such sites from being able to profit from its ads, even if they have the search bars installed on their pages.

The advertisers do not pay Google unless the search ads are clicked on, and the web hosts do not receive any cut of that revenue unless Google approves them for its monetization platform, AdSense for Search.

“Websites who merely implement [the Google search bar] do not get any ad revenue from those ads,” said Dan Taylor, Google’s vice president of ads, in a statement.

In compiling its report, Adalytics scanned for websites containing Google’s search engine tool between October 2022 and this October, and found more than 51,000 pages using it. About 390 of them appeared to be adult content pages, according to the report.

Ads for politicians appeared on porn websites alongside sexually explicit images of “Family Guy” characters.

Adalytics also found recruitment ads for the FBI, the U.S. Army and the National Security Agency served up on Iranian and Russian websites — including an Iranian website and a Russian website listed on the Office of Foreign Assets Control as sanctioned entities.

Neither the Department of Defense nor the NSA responded to requests for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment on behalf of the FBI.

“The very concerning part about all of this is the extreme nature of some of these sites,” Ratko Vidakovic, the founder of AdProfs, an adtech research and advisory firm, said. “It’s beyond what most people would imagine is acceptable in an ad network.”

Ads for liquor were also displayed on children’s websites, if related terms were entered in the search. Two kids’ pages that Adalytics flagged were marketed as child-friendly search engines.

“This is unacceptable, and Google must put an end to this,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in a statement in response to the report.

The ad placements on sanctioned websites are raising concerns from lawmakers both in the U.S. and the European Union.

“Google’s advertising algorithms demand scrutiny,” European Parliament member Paul Tang said in a statement. “The EU Commission must investigate whether and how much money is changing hands alongside these ad placements.”

Sen. Mark Warner has raised concerns about Google’s advertising issues in the past, drawing attention to ads monetizing Covid-19 concerns and how ad fraud can be used to spread political disinformation.

Warner, who has been briefed on the Adalytics report, said in a statement the findings should be a “final straw for the government to take action to clean up this market.”

Political campaigns are generally careful about where their ads can end up, often using tools like blocklists to ensure that their calls to action are reaching the right people.

“Candidates and politicians maintain their image very carefully, and where their advertisements show up is a portion of that,” Mark Jablonowski, the managing partner of Democratic advertising firm DSPolitical, said.

While these improper ad placements could be potentially damaging for campaigns, the candidates themselves haven’t done anything wrong, Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said.

“The campaigns are doing the right thing by advertising on the most popular search engine in the world,” Wilson said. “This speaks more to the fact that Google is allowing ads to be run on these types of pages.”

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