Vienna. Usually, David Alaba spins on the left wing of Bayern Munich. Recently, Austria’s most famous football player has been appearing on the right wing: Since the beginning of March, the "Wiener Zeitung" has been following online banner advertising showing the player’s picture on "Breitbart". This far-right US web portal has gained unfortunate notoriety with its articles and headlines, for example stating that birth control makes women "sluts". Breitbart’s long-standing head, Stephen Bannon, even made it to President Donald Trump’s chief strategist.

In fact, there are two companies advertising with star player Alaba on Breitbart: Coca-Cola and Sky. The beverage producer is a personal sponsor of the 24-year-old footballer. Their advertising banner shows him in a casual position and wearing a grey hoodie sweatshirt, holding a bottle of "Coca-Cola Zero" in his left hand. Sky is not mentioned in the list of sponsors on the player’s website. However, the pay TV service uses Alaba’s picture to advertise their live broadcasts; the image shows a scene from a Champions League match between FC Bayern and PSV Eindhoven in October 2016. The Bavarians won the game 4:1.

For Alaba’s marketing agency and the affected companies, however, these advertisements are a fiasco. Since November 2016, almost 1600 companies (incl. subsidiaries) have blocked Breitbart for their advertising. This includes multi-billion dollar businesses such as Daimler, Easyjet or Siemens, as is revealed by a list of the "Sleeping Giants" initiative. Advertising on Breitbart nowadays leads to loss of reputation. For the first time, this also affects an internationally known top athlete and imperils his brand.

"We develop Brands"

Today, athletes stage themselves as comprehensive artworks. "We develop players into brands," Alaba’s agency Avantgarde Sponsoring promises on its website. The player’s official advertising partners include Coca-Cola, Adidas and Bank Austria, a subsidiary of Italian company UniCredit. Alaba, hashtag #da27, sells billed caps via his own online shop, where it says, "Show the world what team you are on and represent the best team of the league with a premium snapback - DA27". The left-sided defender has many fans on social media: 3.7 million users follow him on the Instagram photo-sharing platform, more than 3.6 million users have given Alaba a like on the social network Facebook, and he counts 1.18 million followers on the news service Twitter. Recently, he has also conquered the news service Snapchat. Private snapshots alternate with pictures from professional photo agencies, which shows that someone at least co-administers Alaba’s channels. In the social media, Alaba certainly has everything under control.

With online advertising, the story is rather different. The banners of Coca-Cola and Sky have both been run via advertising spaces that are placed on Breitbart by Google. This Internet giant is not only the world’s leading search engine, but by far the biggest provider of online advertising. According to Statista, Google turned over 79.4 billion dollars with advertising in 2016. Fifteen years early, it was a paltry 70,000 dollars. With the automated sale of Internet advertising space, ads are placed around predefined keywords or according to users’ interests deducted from click and search behaviour on the Internet. Advertising customers can also book certain topics at Google. Breitbart is included in the category of "news" and thus put on a level with respectable news portals.

Google advertising space

Google does not provide advertising space for tobacco products or illegal drugs on websites selling alcoholic beverages online. Also not for sites with "Content that advocates against an individual, group, or organization". According to their own guidelines, Google draws the line at content that incites hatred or promotes violence against individuals or groups based on race or ethnic origin, religion, or gender. But where Google draws the line between "news" and the category of "hatred", that remains a company secret.

"The placement you discovered is simply a mistake. We have already taken measures together with the responsible media agency to stop this placement," a spokesperson of Coca-Cola’s PR agency in Austria explained to the "Wiener Zeitung". However, this does not mean that Coca-Cola has block listed Breitbart for advertising in general. It is basically possible to shut down undesired online advertising. But this list has to be constantly updated. While an only medium-sized online advertising campaign for a target audience in Austria is placed on more than 10,000 different websites.

In the UK and the United States some companies as well as the British government have been trying to get to the root of the problem and have skipped advertisements via Google. In fact, the advertising giant is not only present on controversial sites like Breitbart, but also provides advertising space on the presumably unsuspicious video portal YouTube – which together with Google belongs to Alphabet. According to Google, 400 hours of video material are uploaded on YouTube every minute. Recently, advertising banners popped up next to videos showing the former leader of the Klu Klux Klan or an Islamistic preacher. Matt Brittin, Google’s head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, apologised for this placement and promised to do better in the future. However, Brittin has declined declined to say whether Google would begin actively seeking out such content and taking action against it, "The Guardian" reported. Until now, the company has only intervened when users reported offensive content. However, pressure on Google is rising day by day: Last Thursday US pharmaceutical and consumer goods producer Johnson & Johnson announced that they would pull all ads from YouTube.

Silence from the Agencies

Coca-Cola Austria, on the other hand, has not replied to the question whether the company will cancel advertising with Google in order to push the technology corporation to show more transparency and diligence in the placement of their ads.

Other questions also remain open, for instance whether Coca-Cola, as an official advertising partner of David Alaba, has the unrestricted right to use his picture for any online advertising. Or whether placement on certain pages is excluded by contract. Alaba’s agency Avantgarde Sponsoring has not responded to multiple requests. Also, the person in charge of all communication of Sky in Austria and Germany has been keeping a low profile.

In an effort to nevertheless retrace common practice in the marketing of footballers, the "Wiener Zeitung" contacted two leading player consulting companies in Germany. But despite the assurance of anonymity, they were not willing to provide any information.