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 through its first 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 care.

So there you have it — no need to debate. Google tells you the documentary isn’t balanced.

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 – you’ve got tech commerce, retail and 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 government censorships.

Similarly, Google has long not allowed gun or tobacco ads, which attracted critics (though ironically, perhaps not Michael Moore), but also drawn some praise. Google’s comment to 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 some confusion.

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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: AdWords | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Raph Levien

    Thanks for your thoughful comments on this issue. I agree with you that advertising is not inherently democratic, and have a lot more criticism about the way this has been handled on my blog.

    Oh, and I work at Google. We’re not all a bunch of faceless drones :)

  • Philipp Lenssen

    Good analysis.

  • Jeffrey Eisenberg

    This is fair and balanced. Excellent coverage!

  • Winooski

    Danny, thanks for waving a huge red flag about the issue of Google appearing to advocate (if not actually advocating per se) for specific industries.

    Hopefully calling this sort of thing to attention will help search engines stick to the job of providing relevant information and stay away from the job of corporate public relations.

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