Why the Outrage over Google’s Prop 8 Ads is Wrong

For the people of California, Arizona, Arkansas and Florida, November 4th was marked by both the election of Barack Obama, and by ballet measures banning gay marriage. In California, the controversial Prop 8 vote was particularly close and the end result came as a surprise to many. Exit polls have since revealed that it was a coalition of Catholics and Mormons who played a prominent role in helping to pass the resolution. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 84% of those who voted to ban gay marriage attended church weekly, and that Catholics accounted for 30% of people who voted yes on the proposition. For the Mormon Church, they accounted for 40% of donations made to the Yes on 8’s $30 million campaign. With both sides of the vote holding strong and vocal coalitions, it’s no wonder why the vote was so close.

With the proposition set to be tied up in the California courts for the immediate future, there have been a lot of accusations with regards to foul play and media manipulation on both sides. At the forefront of the controversy have been Google and their popular ad platform Adsense. The controversy began a few days before the election when Yes on Prop 8 ads started appearing all over the Internet, including on gay friendly sites. While some were able to modify their Adsense accounts to remove the ads, a majority could do nothing. It’s certainly understandable why someone would be upset about displaying opposition ads on their site, yet the reality is that Google and the Yes on Prop 8 coalition did nothing wrong. Adsense, which works off a key word bidding system, ultimately functioned as it should have in going to the highest bidder. To blame Google in this case, is not only wrong, but comes off sounding like sour grapes rather than a legitimate complaint.

OnĀ Spock, we noticed the Prop 8 ads showing up not only on marriage, and education related key words, but on celebrity and professional pages as well. We noticed a similar, but far less severe trend when John McCain purchased key words such as President, election, and even Democrat in August and September. By diversifying their ad spend to cover some of the less popular, but still relevant searches; the Prop 8 supporters maximized their coverage. For those incensed about ads showing up their site, the reality is that ads in general are not necessarily a reflection of a sites content or beliefs, and even if a Prop 8 ad did show up on an unlikely site like gaywheels.com, the probability of someone clicking on such an ad is even lower than normal. Google even came out and made corporate stance in support of gay marriage, which is above and beyond typical company protocol. Looking beyond the issue of gay marriage, the guerilla marketing tactic is fascinating for several reasons including how it may affect future political campaigns, and what it says about online advertising.

From an advertising standpoint, it was noticeable that the No on Prop 8 contingency emphasized heavily on television and print. For the Prop 8 Supporters, they seemed to have focused their energy on ramping up advertising a few days before the election, thereby capitalizing on any undecided and swing voters. In optimizing for key words and overall Internet spend, unlike a TV ad which can be muted or changed, the Prop 8 ads appeared everywhere and could not necessarily be ignored. The fact that they decided to focus so heavily on online ads may be a strong indicator that political campaigns will be shifting more and more funds towards online ad spend. In terms of attainable audience, it makes perfect sense due to the Internets ability to reach people relatively cheaply. If the Prop 8 campaign is any indicator of what a massive push can look like, I wouldn’t be surprised to see other candidates try similar tactics.

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