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LAPD Examines How Recruitment Ad Showed Up On Breitbart's Site


The LAPD has taken a hit after ads recruiting new officers were seen on Breitbart, the right-wing website. The police department says the site does not match its core values. NPR's Shannon Bond looks at how the LAPD got burned by automated online advertising.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: The Los Angeles Police has jobs to fill, so, like many employers, the department put out help-wanted ads. It turned to Google to place them across the internet. The tech giant helps companies find people who might be interested in what they're offering, from sneakers or cellphone service to employment opportunities. It does that by placing their ads on websites that attract the people advertisers want to reach.

One of the places the LAPD's ads reached was Breitbart. The internet exploded. That's because Breitbart has run controversial and inflammatory stories on race and immigration. And the LAPD cannot afford this kind of controversy as it tries to overcome its own difficult history with race, including the notorious Rodney King beating.

CHARLES SCHEER: They know that, you know, over the last 30 years, they've struggled to diversify their workforce to remain, somehow, mirroring Los Angeles' populations.

BOND: That's Charles Scheer, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi. The LAPD says it never intended to advertise on Breitbart. It is conducting an inquiry into how its ads ended up there. It's unclear if the department understood how Google ads work. They get placed automatically through algorithms and can end up in unintended places. It's also unclear if they knew they could block the ads from appearing on specific websites. Google told NPR it gives advertisers controls over where their ads show, including the option to exclude specific websites or entire topics. Google is among NPR's financial supporters.

The LAPD has run into a problem that comes with the territory of today's advertising business. Rob Norman is a former digital advertising executive at the ad company GroupM.

ROB NORMAN: The moment you choose to use an automated system, you then give up on never, ever appearing somewhere inappropriate.

BOND: This isn't the first time ads on Breitbart's site have created headaches. A few years ago, companies including the department store Nordstrom and insurer Allstate pulled their ads from the website after social media protests. Now the LAPD is trying to distance itself from Breitbart. Scheer, the criminal justice professor, says that even if some Breitbart readers might fit the criteria for a police recruit, that is not the message the department wants to send.

SCHEER: Well, is the right way to do it to embrace the values of that website? That's something they've decided the answer is no.

BOND: In the meantime, the LAPD says it won't use Google's advertising service until it puts, quote, "tighter control" over where its ads show up. Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOMA'S "EARTH BREATHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.