Publishers Beware: Advani Ads Can Look Like You Are Endorsing Him

If you are a web publisher who uses Google AdSense to serve up ads on your websites, you might want to have a good look at the image ads from the “LK Advani For PM” campaign served up on your website by Google (NSDQ: GOOG). As in the screenshots here, these image ads can look like an endorsement from the site in the absense of the ‘Ads by Google’ tag.

Advani is the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has taken big time to camapaigning online through a website, blog and heavyduty online advertising through Google AdSense, in a much talked about initiative. The strategy is believed to be inspired by US President Barack Obama’s success mobilizing support online during his campaign and the fact that some 40% of voters in the upcoming general elections are below 25 years of age. A delimitation exercise also means that urban voters, who are more likely to be netizens than their rural counterparts thanks to poor Internet penetration, will have greater representation this time.

While we were reading through Outlook‘s website last week, we stumbled upon a large banner ad at the bottom of the page, which starkly said “Advani For PM’. We brought it to the notice of Outlook publisher Maheshwar Peri that in the absense of the ‘Ads by Google’ tag or any other demarcation by the publisher, it can seem at least to some readers, that Outlook is endorsing Advani. Over the years, Outlook‘s editorial stance has been opposed to Advani’s Hindutva rhetoric, making this a possibility that the magazine, or any independent news outlet for that matter, wouldn’t want to risk. Peri agreed with us and immediately got his people to look into the matter. “We make sure that ads are separated from edit. We will ensure that it is done,” he told us. Now the magazine has decided to insert an image by the side of the ad, clearly specifying that this is an advertisement.

The fact is, Peri, or the folks at Outlook, couldn’t have seen this coming. If you are signing up for AdSense and wanted to understand how an image ad would look like, Google would show you the samples on this page, where all ad formats–text, image and video–clearly carry a line on it saying ‘Ads by Google’. If the Advani campaign signed up as an Ad Words user, they would have been shown the same page as samples of how their ads would appear.

So then how come the Advani ads don’t carry that tag? Is there a different adsense package an advertiser can use to remove the Ads by Google disclaimer? And did the Advani campaign use that?

We asked Sushil Pandit, who heads up The Hive, an advertising agency that is handling the campaign. He said it was never something that was discussed. When we asked him if he could say that the Advani camaign did not insist on removing the ‘Ads by Google’ tag from its ads, he didn’t, and asked us what we were tyring to get at. “When i’m telling you this was never a matter that we discussed, where is the question of insisting?” he asked. We also put the question to Prodyut Bora, who heads BJP’s information technology cell that handles the online campaign, and he said this has never been brought to his attention.

We asked Google when does an ad say it is by Google and when doesn’t it say that. Despite repeated attempts, we did not receive a response, though a Google spokesperson did send us a link to Google AdSense Program Policies, which has no answers to the question.

It’s possible that Google allows premium advertisers to hide the ‘Ads by Google’ tag. But if you are a publisher, you would not know it looking at the pages laying down the policies of the AdSense program. And as the case of Outlook demonstrates, you can be caught unawares.

When the seperation of editorial content and advertising in a newspaper is so sacrosanct, it shouldn’t be any different for a publication’s online edition.