Google uses “Sicko” as excuse to sell ads

Written By Emily Koh | July 2, 2007 | No Comments

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Michael Moore is usually the one facing the backlash after releasing one of his controversial documentaries, but it looks like he’ll have some company this time around. Google has come under fire after employee Lauren Turner posted Does negative press make you Sicko? in response to Moore’s latest film, “Sicko,” on Google’s Health Advertising Blog. Turner criticized the movie for its poor portrayal of the healthcare industry… and then suggested that the remedy to such a situation was to buy some ads:

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 services.

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?

We can place text ads, video ads, and rich media ads in paid search results or in relevant websites within our ever-expanding content network. Whatever the problem, Google can act as a platform for educating the public and promoting your message. We help you connect your company’s assets while helping users find the information they seek.

Turner later recanted, clarifying that the post was her opinion and not representative of Google’s, and acknowledged her error in posting that on a corporate blog. However, she went back to championing advertising:

… 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, advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue.

Still, bloggers weren’t too thrilled — Dan Farber of ZDNet commends Google allows its employees to express their opinions, “but using ‘Sicko’ to pander to advertisers doesn’t come off as the most credible or noble approach to filling Google’s coffers.” Michael Arrington of TechCrunch agrees that the “damage has been done and the egg is all over Google’s face,” and hones in on the danger of corporate blogging and how it can affect Google’s reputation:

What I don’t want to see is Google start to reign in its bloggers. As a public company, Google is almost certainly putting blog posts through their legal and PR departments before they go live (how this slipped through is a mystery). If too many situations like the one above occur, they’ll start to add more policies and layers of review. If that happens, we’ll all have less insight into what’s going on there. I’m hoping it doesn’t.

There’s clearly nothing wrong with using advertising as a means of drawing attention to a cause, as Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land points out, but Google’s problem is trying to walk that delicate line in providing strategic advertising advice to the specific industries that it caters to while still maintaining its policy of neutrality:

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.

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