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Google, “Sicko” Opinions & Issues With Playing Ad Agency
A pitch on an official Google blog to get the healthcare industry to spend
money on positive advertising in reaction to Michael Moore’s documentary
Sicko raised more than
a few eyebrows
today. A follow-up post with the author asking people not to take her opinion as
Google’s own doesn’t solve the bigger issue — Google might be getting too tight
with its advertisers, these days.
Does negative press make you Sicko? was a post to
Google’s Health Advertising
Blog, which only started last month. The blog is designed, as it put it
post, "to help our health industry advertisers better understand how people
are searching for health information, and how you as advertisers can better
leverage the power of search and the Internet."
Today’s post about Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko jumps into the debate
about how accurate his work is, effectively siding with mainstream healthcare
industry. From the post:
Moore attacks health insurers, health providers, and pharmaceutical
companies by connecting them to isolated and emotional stories of the system
at its worst. Moore’s film portrays the industry as money and marketing
driven, and fails to show healthcare’s interest in patient well-being and
So there you have it — no need to debate. Google tells you the documentary
Well, plenty of people have and do accuse Moore of being unbalanced in his
work, but Google traditionally tries to strike a neutral chord on things. Its
prescription for the healthcare industry? Buy some ads:
Sound familiar? Of course. The healthcare industry is no stranger to
negative press. A drug may be a blockbuster one day and tolled as a public
health concern the next. News reporters may focus on Pharma’s annual sales and
its executives’ salaries while failing to share R&D costs. Or, as is often
common, the media may use an isolated, heartbreaking, or sensationalist story
to paint a picture of healthcare as a whole. With all the coverage, it’s a
shame no one focuses on the industry’s numerous prescription programs, charity
services, and philanthropy efforts.
Many of our clients face these issues; companies come to us hoping we can
help them better manage their reputations through “Get the Facts” or issue
management campaigns. Your brand or corporate site may already have these
informational assets, but can users easily find them?
The advice of buying ads is actually good. The problem goes back to the
criticism of Moore and more broadly to Google providing strategic advertising
advice for industries, where it threatens to lose the neutrality it long has
sought to maintain.
To understand more, you need to realize that several years ago, Google
organized groups of ad reps to go after various industries. The Google Health
Advertising Blog is one visible example of that; the
Google Consumer Packaged Goods blog
is another. Other types of vertical targeting? Just check out Google job ads —
finance to name just some. This industry research
page from Google I believe
is a full list of areas they target.
The goal of these ad reps is to get their various vertical areas advertising.
That means coming up with advertising ideas, which can spill over into being
almost like a virtual ad agency for them. To clarify, years ago Google ad reps
originally started out as people who might help you with uploading your own ad
copy, perhaps suggesting keywords and helping with account management issues.
There’s a big difference between that and people trying to guide the message a
particular industry might want to get across.
In particular, the problem is that ad agencies take a positive view of their
clients, while Google — to be most effective as a trusted information resource
— really shouldn’t be taking positions. It especially has to be wary of this
after just two weeks ago making an unprecedented
about face after one
of its biggest advertisers, eBay, yanked ads. If one big advertiser can make
Google jump, what happens if others push hard on it?
Google shouldn’t take positions? To be fair, I think we do want companies to
have opinions in some areas and stand up for them. For example, many are
disappointed that Google did not take a strong stance on censorship in China,
choosing instead to go in for primarily business reasons and cave into
Similarly, Google has long not allowed gun or tobacco ads, which attracted
critics (though ironically, perhaps not Michael Moore), but also drawn some
me back in 2004 on taking stances like this:
Indeed, it remains true that Google can largely choose to accept or deny
whatever ads it wants. For example, gun and tobacco ads are out, but peddling
porn in Google ads is OK. Some may not agree with these choices, but they
remain Google’s to make.
"We have the right to choose
who we do business with," said Sheryl Sandberg, vice president of global
online sales and operations for Google.
Choosing not to take money from some industries may be controversial (it
recently banned ads from
essay services), but Google has survived that so far. However, it’s another
thing to be advocating for industries involved in a debate. Will Google, in the
middle of a huge environmental awareness
push, start advising traditional energy companies soon on how to knock back
on all that global warming hype with ads? You can see the tricky line the
company has to walk.
To be safer, Google ought to get back to just selling space and not trying to
be an ad agency to these groups. That’s what ad agencies do, and they aren’t hit
by the burden of also having to run supposedly unbiased information resources.
Meanwhile, the author of the original post — Lauren Turner — has a
follow-up post called
My opinion and Google’s, where she stresses that the original opinion posted
about Sicko was her own:
Some readers thought the opinion I expressed about the movie
Sicko was actually Google’s opinion.
It’s easy to understand why it might have seemed that way, because after all,
this is a corporate blog. So that was my mistake — I understand why it caused
But the more important point, since I doubt that too many people care about my
personal opinion, is that advertising is an effective medium for handling
challenges that a company or industry might have. You could even argue that it’s
especially appropriate for a public policy issue like healthcare. 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.
That is Google’s opinion, and it’s unrelated to whether we support, oppose or
(more likely) don’t have an official position on an issue. That’s the real point
I was trying to make, which was less clear because I offered my personal
criticism of the movie.
I don’t know that advertising is that democratic, as it tends to favor the
people with the most money (yes, even at Google with its black box ad ranking
system). Still, I can feel real sympathy for someone relatively new to corporate
blogging for letting something so unbalanced get out there seemingly as if it is
an official Google opinion.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t eliminate the specter that offline, the ad reps may
still be getting in tight with their particular industries on the PR front
perhaps more than is good for Google or its users.