Amazon mistakenly told some sellers that it had launched a prohibition on ads with “religious content,” with one seller claiming “serious loss in revenue” and others reporting similar issues on seller forums, CNBC reported this weekend.
According to CNBC’s report, some sellers saw ads blocked and were told via email that a “new policy update” at Amazon barred any advertising containing “religious content.” In one email to a seller, Amazon representatives wrote that “Products related to a specific religion are not allowed to be advertised.”
Amazon now says the crackdown was a mistake and teams would be re-trained, telling CNBC, “The email that CNBC viewed contains inaccurate information and our long standing policies have not changed. Corrective training is being provided to the relevant teams.”
[The seller who claimed lost revenue] has been selling apparel with Christian and bible messages on them for the last two years. The ads for these products described them as “Christian Fashion Gifts,” and included photos of the items with biblical quotes and religious language on them.
When the seller asked Amazon about the ad suspension, the company said the content of the ads violated its new policy. It also said that ads by other sellers that include similar language about religion would soon get taken down as well.
“The other sellers who are currently advertising religious related Products are doing incorrect practice, which may lead to their account suspension,” Amazon’s rep told the seller in an email last week.
According to CNBC, that person said their ads were still blocked as of Friday afternoon. When they flagged other religious ads still on the site to Amazon, the company responded, “Please know that our team is reviewing ads on a phase basis as there are millions of ads and removing all the ineligible ads would not be possible.”
This situation was far from the only one, CNBC wrote:
A number of different posts on Amazon’s seller forum describe nearly identical interactions. One post from February, for example, said the seller was told that Amazon was “working to stop all advertising of religious items.” Another post from last month said rosaries were prohibited from advertising because they are “religious in nature.”
Amazon’s ad policy page does include sections prohibiting ads involving “religious advocacy, either advocating or demeaning any religion,” as well those promoting “religious or spiritual services.” In the entertainment section, it says “references to a specific religion or faith in a historical or fictional context if the primary purpose is to entertain.” Ads that merely mention a religion—such as ones for the aforementioned Christianity-themed gifts—don’t seem to be directly prohibited so long as they don’t violate one of the other rules, matching up with Amazon’s characterization of the incident as an error.
Massive tech platforms have lately been facing an increasingly hostile reception from regulators, legislators, and the media over their ad models. Facebook infamously failed to prevent its ad platform from becoming a vehicle for discriminatory ads, and earlier this year was slapped with charges of enabling housing discrimination by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Facebook and Google have also faced harsh criticism for giving advertisers the power to target users identified as having bigoted views. As CNBC noted, it’s possible that removing some potentially controversial categories of ads could help Amazon pre-empt similar criticism.
Amazon’s third-party Marketplace section is also infamously cutthroat, with sellers eager to undercut competitors or simply joust them off the platform entirely, and Amazon reportedly reaching summary judgments over disputes that can instantaneously impact the viability of entire businesses. Using ads is one of the few ways to increase visibility on the platform besides landing a coveted Amazon-recommended slot or gaming the ranking algorithm—and Amazon’s ad platform now ranks third in the U.S. behind Google and Facebook—so it’s pretty clear why sellers would be upset about losing access.