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Amazon is fighting to enforce its own political advertising rules

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Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, pictured on October 2, 2019.

Elif Öztürk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As big tech companies grapple with how to deal with political advertising on their platforms, Amazon is part of the club. The company’s policies on how to deal with sponsored advertisements or advertisements promoting product or branding listings are still unclear as to their interpretation and enforcement.

On the one hand, Amazon says it bans ads for products related to campaigns or to promote politicians. However, the website still has many examples of sponsored products promoting the 2020 candidates’ campaigns or political parties.

There is also at least one example of an advertiser whose sponsored ad was removed by Amazon for containing a reference to a political figure, which Amazon believes was a mistake.

Amazon’s current Sponsored Product Policy states that “content related to campaigns, elections, or political issues of public debate, advocating for or against a politician or political party, or personally attacking a political figure” is prohibited.

But after a little bit of research, CNBC found dozens of examples of sponsored products that appeared to violate these rules, including a Michael Bloomberg 2020 President Supporter T-shirt, a Talk Bernie to Me Sanders 2020 T-shirt, and a t-shirt that reads “Trump 2020 The Sequel Makes Liberals Cry Again.”

“We require that all advertisers adhere to the Amazon advertising guidelines,” an Amazon spokesman told CNBC in a statement sent by email. “We monitor ads for compliance using automated tools and review teams, and take action if those guidelines are not followed.”

The handling of political advertising by large technology companies has been put to the test in recent months. Spotify recently announced it was suspending political ads for 2020, citing inadequate tools to review the ads. Twitter announced in October that it would completely ban political advertising. Facebook takes the opposite approach and refuses to remove or review candidates’ ads even if they contain incorrect information. Meanwhile, Snap has said it is fact-checking political ads that appear on Snapchat.

A sponsored offer for a “Liberals Suck” t-shirt on Amazon.

Megan Graham

Steve Yates, CEO of Prime Guidance, consults some third party sellers who sell political goods on Amazon. He said he continues to see “hundreds” of ads for political goods on the platform, which are often the top hits on searches. Sponsored items he’s seen include Donald Trump and Joe Biden clothing, he said.

It shows that Amazon does not prevent sellers from using political figures or names “as keywords for bidding,” added Yates.

“They do, however, expect sellers to monitor themselves by not showing ads on the website that target those keywords,” Yates said.

Yates said he advises all sellers he works with to follow Amazon’s guidelines, although it’s obvious other sellers don’t.

When consumers search for a product on Amazon, they are likely to notice products with a “sponsored” label. These are “sponsored products” or keyword-targeted ads that advertisers can use to promote specific products. It can be difficult for the untrained eye to even tell that these are advertisements.

Here advertisers bid on certain terms and advertisements with higher bids are more likely to be placed. Advertisers only pay when their ad is clicked and they set the maximum amount they are willing to pay. This is similar to how search ads work on Google. These ads can appear above, nearby, or in search results, or even on product detail pages.

Sponsored products for those searching for Elizabeth Warren products.

Megan Graham

Amazon claims it falsely flagged the novelty Trump apparel

But while many of Amazon’s political ads have slipped through unnoticed, Amazon said that other sponsored political-themed products that follow Amazon’s guidelines have been incorrectly removed.

At the end of December, Amazon informed an agency that advertises on behalf of the manufacturer of Trump’s novelty clothing that it could not place ads for a product because it contained a reference to a political personality. The message came from an Amazon support email sent to the agency that was viewed by CNBC. (The agency asked CNBC not to identify the product as they do not have the right to disclose their client’s brand.)

In the email, Amazon said that under its advertising policy, “products related to political figures and products that mock a person’s looks” are banned from advertising. The company said that “these products are currently only allowed to be sold on Amazon, but they are prohibited from being advertised on Amazon.”

The email from Amazon to the agency also states that “similar ads” can be found, but “please know these ads were approved prior to the advertising policy change and our in-house team will review and review these ads on the site.” excludes such ads from advertising “. . With so many ads on our website, it will take some time to remove all banned ads from advertising. “

An Amazon spokeswoman said Monday, “The email that CNBC was looking at contained inaccurate information and our long-standing guidelines have not changed.” The company said the product was actually approved and addressed the problem.

But after the advertiser inquired later on Monday, Amazon sent them another email claiming that the sponsored product was still breaching the breach because the product was “linked to a political figure”.

Will Tjernlund of Goat Consulting, an Amazon consulting agency that worked on the placement of the ads on Amazon, said he understood why Amazon was making a policy change, but said he wished the company would monitor the policies better.

Amazon has had problems enforcing its advertising policies in the past. In May 2019, the company announced to some small sellers that it would no longer allow ads with religious content. Amazon later said the policy was a mistake, using the same language they used to comment on the politically-related email this week, saying its employees would be retrained. But the sudden ad ban in 2019 still hit some sellers’ sales directly.

Both incidents are just the latest examples of Amazon’s ongoing problems with the third-party marketplace, which now accounts for over half of the company’s e-commerce volume. As the platform has grown to include millions of sellers, it has become a hotbed for counterfeit, unsafe, and expired goods, while the Amazon’s Choice logo has also been questioned based on reports recommending counterfeit, defective, and shoddy products .

In response, lawmakers have written letters to CEO Jeff Bezos urging the company to take action to curb counterfeiting and asking for more information about its product recommendation engine.

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