Two leading companies yesterday pulled their advertising from Facebook after they were randomly placed on a page giving information about the British National party.
Vodafone and First Direct took the step when they were alerted to the fact that their adverts were included on a rotation system which flashed them up at intervals on the BNP's entry.
The move may affect other advertisers on Facebook by highlighting a current lack of control over where the multimillion page network places their bookings. It is also likely to lead to refinements in the saturation advertising approach of some firms to currently popular websites.
A Vodafone spokeswoman said that the company had bought "bundles" of advertising space for its mobile phone services in a block booking involving Facebook and a number of similar sites.
She said: "As a result we were not aware that a Vodafone advertisement would appear next to a British National party group on Facebook. Our public policy principles state that we do not make political donations or support particular party political interests and therefore to avoid misunderstandings we immediately withdrew our advertising as soon as this was brought to our attention."
First Direct also signalled likely changes towards a more sophisticated way of advertising on the internet. The banking and insurance firm's spokesman, Rob Skinner, said: "We are obviously concerned about where our advertising appears. We have got to make sure that the places we advertise are consistent with our own values and identity."
Vodafone said that it hoped to reinvest in similar advertising but only when "more robust controls" were in place to specify where bookings would appear. The spokeswoman said that the company would work on a basis which gave access to the huge potential audience of sites such as Facebook, while "staying true to our principles".
The adverts on the BNP page in Facebook's political organisations section were spotted by the magazine New Media Age which contacted both firms. The NMA's editor, Justin Pearse, said: "On the internet you often have little control of where your ads are shown. That's now been highlighted by the unwitting association of some of the UK's favourite brands with a highly controversial political cause."
The BNP Facebook page links to the extreme rightwing party's own website and a welcoming section paragraph saying the group exists "to secure a future for the indigenous peoples of these islands in the North Atlantic which have been our homeland for millennia".
The party's spokesman, Phil Edwards, said: "There is no reason at all why anyone should avoid the BNP. There's nothing wrong with the BNP. Unfortunately the media have created a bogeyman and really the fault lies with the media, who for some reason have vilified the BNP, and it has scared these people off."
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