Between posts about conspiracy theories and right-wing grievances was an unusual advertisement: a photo of former President Donald Trump holding a $1,000 bill made of gold, which he was apparently offering free to supporters.
But there were a few catches: The bill was not free, it was not made of gold, and it was not offered by Trump.
The ad appeared on Truth Social, the right-wing social network started by Trump in late 2021, one of many pitches from hucksters and fringe marketers dominating the ads on the site.
Ads from major brands are nonexistent on the site. Instead, the ads on Truth Social are for alternative medicine, diet pills, gun accessories and Trump-themed trinkets, according to an analysis of hundreds of ads on the social network by The New York Times.
The ads reflect the difficulty that several far-right platforms, including Rumble and Gab, have faced in courting large brands, preventing the sites from tapping into some of the world's largest ad budgets. It could be particularly problematic for Truth Social. Although the site has gained influence among the far right, becoming a vibrant ecosystem brimming with activity, its business is in need of cash.
Truth Social raised about $37 million, mainly from Republican political donors, but it is burning through about $1.7 million each month, according to William Wilkinson, a former executive at Trump Media & Technology Group, the social network's parent company. And two federal investigations have put about $1.3 billion of much-needed funding in jeopardy.
Devin Nunes, CEO of Trump Media, said in an announcement last year that the company's ad strategy would help it "displace the Big Tech platforms" as a major way to reach Americans.
But ad experts say the wariness from prominent brands on far-right social networks, which have positioned themselves as free-speech alternatives to Silicon Valley giants such as Meta and Google, is driven by the kinds of conspiracy theories and hyperpartisan politics often found on the sites.
In addition, they say, Truth Social has a relatively small user base and many older users, who are less desirable for the brands. Marketers have complained that Truth Social's ad-serving technology, run by Rumble, a right-wing video streaming website, offers limited tools for tracking an ad's performance or for showing ads to users based on their demographic profiles. Those tools, now standard among larger ad networks operated by Google and Meta, are vital for determining an ad's success.
"The more you stray from that safe center, the more you become the fringe or the extreme on anything, then the less money you're going to get," said Tom Denford, CEO of ID Comms, an advertising consulting firm.
Truth Social and Trump Media & Technology Group did not respond to requests for comment.
Companies can typically use tools offered by digital ad services to prevent their ads from appearing near words or phrases that might upset customers - like war, assault or suicide. In a reflection of the wariness that brands have over Trump and his politics, the word "Trump" ranked as the 11th most common blacklisted term provided by advertisers in 2019, according to data from Integral Ad Science, a company focusing on brand safety.
"It's really dangerous for major advertisers to be closely associated with a political figure and also a political movement," said Bob Hoffman, an advertising industry veteran and the author of The Ad Contrarian, a newsletter critical of the industry. "It's not in their best interest to get involved in that quagmire."
Similar challenges faced Twitter after Elon Musk bought the company and said he would create a more permissive environment for free speech. Advertisers fled that platform or paused their campaigns in response, causing a significant drop in revenue.
"They pulled off Twitter because they are not sure that Twitter can fulfill their brand safety guidelines, and they will stay off until they are reassured," Denford said.
Musk also welcomed Trump back on Twitter, reinstating his account in November. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, announced this week that it would reinstate the president's accounts after he was barred in 2021 from the social media services, which said Trump's posts ran the risk of inciting more violence after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Trump is obligated to make his posts available exclusively on Truth Social for six hours, and he has not posted to other social networks since Truth launched. That deal expires in June but can be renewed.
Rumble, the video streamer that manages ads for Truth Social, earns $15 million to $25 million annually, according to estimates from Similarweb, a company that analyzes websites. Rumble did not respond to requests for comment.
When ads launched on Truth last year using Rumble's platform, marketers complained that it offered limited ways to target ads to people based on their demographics - like age, gender or interests. It also offered no way to track whether the ad resulted in a sale, a feature coveted by advertisers and offered by large ad networks like Google.
Maxwell Finn, an online marketer, said in a YouTube video that he was one of Truth Social's top advertisers, spending more than $150,000 on ads, including those for Trump-themed hats, shirts, coins and novelty bills.
In the video, he called the ad platform "frustrating" and "bare bones," adding that it lacked even basic functionality, forcing his company to manually track ad performance - a method that would prove impossible for advertisers with larger budgets.
"Do I think this is a platform where you can be spending tens of thousands of dollars a day, especially if you only have a few products?" he said in another video. "No, probably. The audience is just too small."
Over time, the low-quality ads on Truth Social have irritated its own users, who have complained to Trump after repeatedly seeing the same disturbing images or after falling for misleading gimmicks.
"Can you not vet the ads on Truth?" asked one user in a post directed at Trump. "I've been scammed more than once."
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