(Financial Times) -- Major advertisers including Nissan and Nationwide have suspended Facebook marketing campaigns after their ads appeared alongside offensive posts, highlighting the risks of a new form of "targeted" advertising.
The cancellations follow complaints on Twitter and from women's rights organisations over the publication of misogynistic content, including images of abused women, on the social networking site.
Targeted advertising identifies that a person is likely to buy a particular product, and then automatically places ads for that product on whatever page he or she visits.
Adverts for Japanese carmaker Nissan, Nationwide, the UK's largest building society, Unilever's Dove skincare brand, were automatically placed next to the offensive images that Facebook users either sought out or stumbled upon accidentally. To the companies' embarrassment, screenshots juxtaposing the misogynistic images with their products were then widely circulated.
Nationwide said it had pulled its Facebook adverts pending resolution of the situation. Dove said it was working with Facebook to have the offensive content removed and "refine our [ad] targeting terms in case any further pages like these are created".
The backlash "feels like a watershed moment for Facebook", said Christian Purser, head of digital at ad agency M&C Saatchi. "They do have to take responsibility for content if they are to continue growing their advertising."
Bob Wootton, at ISBA, which represents major advertisers in the UK, said: "The reputational damage that appearing next to these unfortunate placements can inflict can very quickly outstrip what is a tiny media cost."
He added that Facebook and other websites, which have identified targeted advertising as a lucrative revenue source, need to come up with a "technological solution" that does not "take advertising in any area where there is a likely [reputational] risk".
In the first three months of this year, Facebook generated revenues of $1.46bn, a 38 per cent rise over the same period a year ago, as it rolled out new tools allowing advertisers to target individual users.
Facebook said on Tuesday that the vast majority of the misogynistic content had been removed from its site. It is facing calls to review how it polices the site's pages.
Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said there were many more examples of similarly distasteful images that, despite user complaints, had not been removed.
Facebook notes that with almost 100bn pages on its site, identifying and removing offensive content can take time.
Last week almost 100 women's organisations wrote an open letter to Facebook to demand better policing . It also called on Facebook users to complain to brands whose ads had appeared next to controversial content.
Separately, online ads for mobile operator Vodafone inadvertently appeared next to a YouTube video in which al-Qaeda sympathisers called for jihad. Vodafone said it had been unaware of the situation and was "understandably concerned".
© The Financial Times Limited 2013