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Google’s Good Advertising Standards

Chris Hoofnagle, professor of law in residence | September 24, 2010

Media companies have always had a complex relationship with consumer protection. On one hand, they want to protect consumers from harm, but on the other, advertising butters their bread. Thus historically, media companies have opposed product safety, truth-in-advertising, and even the incredibly popular Telemarketing Do-Not-Call Registry. They have argued that consumers are best protected in the marketplace of ideas, one where consumers will read news about the risks of products or scams and make smart decisions for themselves.

This, of course, doesn’t work, because there are far more economic incentives to spread bad instead of good ideas. Marketers know how to manipulate biases and play upon individuals’ optimism such that tens of millions of Americans fall victims to frauds. The volume of such advertising is such that one is likely to see many false representations for each curative article, and in some cases, the media fails us by uncritically promote misleading or unsubstantiated claims.

Print and broadcast media have long had advertising clearance standards; they hand review advertisements for certain banned criteria, yet many still accept advertising for homeopathic remedies, weight loss products, etc.

Google, however, is pioneering a solution to this problem, in an atmosphere where many would argue that screening for fraudulent ads is impossible: online advertising. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the company is suing “rogue online pharmacies,” that persistently attempt to place ads on Google’s service. Online pharmacies are just one form of illegitimate ads banned by Google.

Google’s good advertising standards are not only good for consumers, they are good for Google. By banning scammy ads from Google, these ads go elsewhere—to competitors’ websites, where they cheapen the user experience and thus reduce competitors’ advertising revenue.