The Obama campaign ad that started it all — a display ad on Real Clear Politics that requested a user’s e-mail address — wasn’t even a Google ad. But someone from the Republican National Senatorial Committee (RNSC) thought it was, so she called her Google sales rep and asked about getting something similar for the GOP.
(Publishers that run Google’s AdSense ads aren’t barred from running ads from other networks, so ads from Google can appear next to, or subsequently to, ads from other third-party networks, or even those sold by the sites themselves. )
What happened next is at the root of all the confusion, as reported in POLITICO, among other outlets. The Google salesperson told the RNSC staffer that the cost-per-lead ad type wasn’t yet widely available, leading many to conclude that the Obama campaign had gotten special early access.
Here was the text of the email, as reported by POLITICO:
“This is a pre-alpha product that is being released to a select few clients. I’d be happy to get you into the beta if you’re interested.”
As you can imagine, this sparked all sorts of outrage that Google had given Democrats access to a product test that wasn’t being equally offered to Republicans. News outlets trotted out the fact that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt sits on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
In fact, Google says, the salesperson wasn’t aware that the ad in question was not a Google ad, and just assumed it was part of an early test — because teams selling to Republicans and Democrats are kept separate and information is not shared between them. A Google spokesperson, talking to POLITICO, went so far as to say that the salesperson had engaged in inaccurate “puffery.”
“As our clients know, when we experiment with new products like this, our sales teams always has, and always will, offer the exact same opportunity to both sides of politics, at the same time,” Google spokesperson Rob Shilkin told me. “Our Democratic and Republican sales teams are strictly separated from each other and are charged with offering the absolutely best online ad solution for their respective clients.”
Google isn’t saying much about the pre-alpha experiment other than to say it is a display ad, rather than a search ad.
Note: a previous version of the story failed to note that the ad in question was a display ad test, rather than a search ad.