Good news from Google ads

I hate the teeth-whitening and flab-vanishing ads that sometimes appear on this page just as much as you do. I ban them sometimes, but there are too many to keep track of and Google’s best filtering options aren’t offered to weblogs. So this is excellent news:

Google has made a minor shift in its policy that has major implications. Up until now it has taken action against ads, not advertisers. If an ad violated one of Google’s terms of use, the search giant would take it out of circulation, but that’s it. Google briefed TBM on its new policy: It will now ban the advertiser, not the ad, effectively neutering the advertiser’s ability to shift from one ad and shell site to another. Think of it like the struggle between the police and a graffiti vandal. Up until now Google has only been erasing the tags after they’ve been put up. Going forward, they’re going to take away his spray cans and put a GPS collar on him, making sure he never does it again. It would be a principled stand by any company, but especially by Google because of its position in the market. I worry, though, that the rest of the industry won’t pay attention. On this issue, Google might be a leader without any followers.

I trust the scammy nature of these ads is obvious to the dentally and physically perfected readers of this weblog, but I was unaware of just how scammy they really are:

There are handfuls of these get-beautiful/healthy/rich-quick schemes floating around the Internet, and all their advertising structures behave the same way: Some sketchy ad leads you to some sketchy testimonial page, which then leads you to the sketchy product itself. When you order the product, the vendor doesn’t always make clear that you’re signing up for a free trial, and when that’s over you’ll be charged up to $90 every month until you find a way to cancel. There isn’t much information about why all of these scams operate in the same way, even though this kind of Web advertising is quite prevalent.

Honestly I would have been just as happy with a “Don’t display unsightly human anatomy” ad filter, but this solution seems much more feasible. I hope Google’s new program works and that such ads will be showing up less frequently here in the near future.

[Via BoingBoing.]

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We are journalists, not marketers

The FTC has issued new guidelines cautioning bloggers to disclose ties to products they endorse or risk an $11,000 fine:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

Yes, it’s true: Sometimes marketers send me stuff hoping that I will write about it. Shocking, right?

Speaking only of the booze blogging world, I don’t see how this rule is either necessary or workable. It’s not necessary because we all know that our credibility will take a hit if we endorse bad products. I’m more likely to mention a product that I’ve received for free than one that I have to pay for simply because I don’t have an infinite budget for liquor, but I’m not going to sell out by giving a review to every crappy product that hits my door; I have the barely touched bottles of flavored spirits to prove it. (Actually I don’t, because I give those away for friends to use at house parties when people are too drunk to care.)

If there’s a demand for disclosure policies bloggers will provide them. Doug’s doing this now at his Pegu Blog by appending every post using a free product with a note saying that “the Liquor Fairy was here.” It’s a good idea and seems to work for him. In my case though I’d have a hard time deciding when to include a disclaimer, in part because I’m courted by marketers not just as a blogger but as a bartender as well.

A clear case of when I could (and generally do) include a disclaimer is when I get a package in the mail with a sample bottle and a note saying the sender hopes I will write about the product. Some less clear and entirely realistic cases include:

A liquor company holds a contest for bartenders offering real or potential rewards to those who participate by creating a drink with their product. I like the drink I come up with and feature it here; I mention that it was for a contest but don’t specify the rewards of participation.

A liquor company gives me a bottle or taste of their product unaware that I am a blogger. I like the product and write about it.

A liquor company takes me to dinner and offers samples of their products. A few months later the same company comes out with a new product that I independently purchase and enjoy. I write about it here.

A liquor company holds an open tasting event geared toward bartenders, bloggers, and enthusiasts. I attend and blog about the product.

A liquor company sends me a bottle for review. I don’t review it here, but I mention liking it on Twitter.

You get the idea: Spend enough time in this business and a lot of free stuff is going to come your way. And given the massive consolidation in the liquor industry there’s not going to be any brand owned by one of the big companies that I won’t have some plausible connection to. Trying to disclose all of this would get rapidly out of hand; not disclosing it leaves me liable to thousands of dollars in fines under an untested rule. (It’s unlikely the FTC would come after me, but all it takes is one vindictive person to file a complaint.)

I’ve been considering adding an explicit review policy to this site and may do so soon, but I don’t know how I could fully comply with the FTC guidelines even if I wanted to. The same ends are accomplished by bloggers’ need to maintain credibility without the potentially chilling effect this rule would have if it’s enforced too liberally.

What strikes me as the biggest flaw in these guidelines is that they treat bloggers as equivalent to celebrity endorsers or “word-of-mouth marketers” rather than as journalists. With possible exception for sites designed specifically as disguised ads, it seems better to leave disclosure to journalistic discretion rather than codifying it into law.

[Via @BrookeOB1.]

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Jumping the anti-gay shark

Man, what is with gay people these days? Forming long-lasting relationships, opening small businesses with their partners, raising young children in loving households. Next thing you know they’ll want to get married and grow old together. It’s a good thing the American Family Association is keeping an eye on them and putting a stop to their anti-family agenda.

Do click through and view the Campbell’s soup ad that is getting AFA all lathered up. It’s difficult to imagine how bigoted one must be to be offended by it. It makes no mention of legal rights, marriage, or any political issue. Not that there’s any hope for getting the people at AFA to come around, but when even the Campbell’s brand has become too liberal for them they might consider it time to re-evaluate their priorities.

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Please don’t feed the animals

Ben says:

The logistics of your blog’s layout amount for an interesting contrast. You have a post decrying the GOP’s disregard of civil liberties next to an ad encouraging people to donate to the McCain-Palin campaign. ???

With the election entering full swing, this is a good time to remind everyone that I don’t control what ads show up on the sidebar. They’re generated by Google based on the words used on this site. Right now that’s leading to a lot of political campaign ads.

I could log into my account and block these as they come up, but I don’t for several reasons. One is that it’s time consuming. Another is that I don’t want to put myself in the position of tacitly approving the ads that do appear. The last is that these ads present a great opportunity: when you click on them, you’re taking money away from John McCain, Barack Obama, the Republicans, and the Democrats and putting it into my pocket. Given that they’re all competing for the right to take away our incomes, this is only fair.

This system only works if you don’t donate to the campaigns after you click through. Seriously, don’t do that. If you have money that you absolutely must give away, please get in touch and I’ll be more than happy to help you come up with more effective ways of doing good in the world.

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