Google has egg on its face today after an employee for the company’s health advertising team ripped Michael Moore’s new film “Sicko” on a corporate blog — and then had to apologize. “Moore’s film portrays the industry as money and marketing driven, and fails to show healthcare’s interest in patient well-being and care,” wrote Lauren Turner in the first blog post. Turner went on to tout Google AdWords as a great tool for companies to manage their reputations through “issue management campaigns.”
What struck me most, though, was not the first ill-conceived blog post, but Turner’s follow-up, “oops” post. There Turner argued that advertising is a perfect place for companies and advocates to debate issues. “Whether the healthcare industry wants to rebut charges in Mr. Moore’s movie, or whether Mr. Moore wants to challenge the healthcare industry, advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue.”
Three years ago, Google seemed to be singing a slightly different tune. Then, the environmental group Oceana bought Google search engine ads criticizing the environmental practices of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. One of the ads did not even mention Royal Caribbean by name. But Google pulled the ads because they violated an unpublished policy prohibiting ads that “advocate against other individuals, groups, or organizations.” The line from Google back then was that you can’t use AdWords to go negative on someone.
Now we have an advertising account planner suggesting that ads be used for public debate. Great idea. But are we really to believe that Michael Moore can “challenge the healthcare industry” without advocating against some person or entity? And vice versa. It seems inconsistent. And gray. And muddied. (See this email thread to see how Google’s own employees struggle with this policy.) As search engine expert Danny Sullivan noted in this Nation article in 2004, “Advocacy groups are going to be by their nature anti-something.”
Google is free to accept or reject any ads it wants. And it should aggressively police its ads for hateful speech. But maybe now - as we head into what will surely be a contentious presidential campaign - the company should clarify the type of advocacy ads that are and are not allowed.