Why Can’t I Exclude North Korea From My Google Ad Targeting?

Austin's Expression: Why Can't I Exclude North Korea From My Ad Targeting?

The Mystery of Google Ads Serving in OFAC-Sanctioned Countries

We’ve all been there: you have a brand new product that is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and you need the world to know. Well, okay – maybe not the *entire* world…

You might be selling blue jeans, edgy haircuts, real estate, designer shoes, Christmas trees, concert tickets, or sports cars. Whatever your line of business, there may be a few places on the planet that just aren’t the ideal spots to pitch your product. For example: many of the items listed above are simply not allowed or accessible in DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea.

Many of you may be thinking: “Well, North Korea is an OFAC sanctioned country, just like Iran or Syria. My ads shouldn’t even be able to show up there in the first place!” 

Officially, you are correct! Unofficially, this has been proven false. There are many examples we’ve seen across brands and organizations using Google Ads where a look at the location reports confirmed that campaigns have mysteriously served traffic in these countries Google has supposedly “blacklisted” – even though they are not officially selectable as specific locations for targeting. (More on Understanding Google Ads and AdWords Express country restrictions).

And because you cannot select these locations to target, you are also unable to explicitly exclude them from your campaigns – meaning, if your campaign is targeted globally, there really is no way to control your ads’ serving in these countries.

When questioned about these locations’ appearances in campaign location reports, Google has been suspiciously evasive. After all, if these locations should have no access to Google Ads whatsoever, how could they be served from these campaigns?

The only official answers we’ve been able to find from Google have essentially made the following points:

  • You cannot use Google Ads as an advertiser if you are in these countries
  • You cannot run ads that promote OFAC sanctioned domains (such as “.ir” for Iran)

However, these responses seem to avoid the fact that businesses are technically not supposed to be able to serve ads in these countries at all – let alone make money off of that traffic, as Google has apparently been doing for some time. Prevention of such activities was likely the intent behind the OFAC restrictions in the first place.

The real answer behind this conundrum has yet to be discovered; however, if you’re an advertiser managing global campaigns, and the exclusion of these countries is important to you, there is something straightforward (and slightly annoying) you can do to work around this issue: simply target only the desired location targets in your campaigns. Hopefully, in your situation, this doesn’t mean manually selecting nearly every other country in the world…

In the meantime, we at Augurian will continue sleuthing this slippery situation, and keep you posted on our findings. However, if you don’t hear back from us, it’s quite possible that we discovered something we were not meant to see… Tell our moms we love them.