Digital advertising strategists on both sides of the aisle expressed concern Thursday over the newly announced changes to Google’s ad policy, arguing they will negatively impact legitimate political outreach while doing little to stop the spread of disinformation.
Beginning next week in the United Kingdom and on Jan. 6, 2020 in America, Google will stop political marketers from targeting voters by browsing and search history through its search, display, and YouTube ads.
Google Ads VP Scott Spencer wrote: “[W]e’re limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level). Political advertisers can, of course, continue to do contextual targeting, such as serving ads to people reading or watching a story about, say, the economy.”
Facebook is reportedly planning to unveil its own ad targeting curbs while Twitter has already said it’s exiting the political advertising business altogether.
But from Google’s changes, fundraising and persuasion advertising could take an immediate hit, consultants told C&E.
Of greatest concern to Lindsay Jacobs, executive director of Majority Money, is that re-marketing ads on Google will no longer be possible.
“Those are ads when someone goes and visits your website or they maybe fill out half of a donation form when they go to other websites, we’re serving them with remarketing ads, to get back to that website,” she said Thursday at C&E’s CampaignTech Innovation Summit in DC.
“[The changes are] pretty disappointing because that’s someone who has shown a propensity to be curious about what we’re doing so the fact that we then can’t go after them to recapture that information and hopefully persuade them and take them through the whole acquisition phase — that’s going to be where we see the biggest changes,” Jacobs said.
Republican digital consultant Carter Kidd also noted how persuasion ads will suffer: “You can come up with a lot of ways to work around it for acquisition when you’re looking for new email addresses and things like that, but persuasion is going to be hit pretty hard,” Kidd said. “I think more is likely to come with second and third-party data in terms of restrictions and who can do what. YouTube will certainly be impacted.”
Tara McGowan, CEO of ACRONYM, said Google was using its power of the ad market — it takes in 73.1 percent of search ad revenue, according to a recent study — to limit how campaigns and groups talk to voters.
"It's outrageous. Instead of monitoring and taking responsibility for the spread of misinformation on their platforms, Google has chosen to pursue a disingenuous and frankly dangerous shift in their policies so they can claim publicly to be serious about the problem,” McGowan said in a statement. “This change won't curb disinformation, but it will hinder campaigns and others who are already working against the tide of bad actors to reach voters with facts.”
Julia Ager of Sapphire Strategies provided an example of the concern McGowan raised. She noted that during the recent Louisiana governor’s race, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’s campaign got four different ads from GOP super PACs pulled from TV because of inaccuracies.
“Those ads continued to run on Facebook and Google, because FB and Google, feel like that’s fine,” Ager said. “If a judge in a state race says its a lie and should be taken off TV, it should be taken off digital.”
Meanwhile, Ager noted that a mobilization and persuasion campaign that Bel Edwards’s campaign ran through Google would now be impossible. “Ultimately what this Google policy does is takes away our ability to target voters,” she said. “Rolling back that policy right away would be our recommendation.”
Google has said it will take action against political marketers who make false claims. “It’s against our policies for any advertiser to make a false claim—whether it's a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died,” Spencer wrote, noting that the company expected that action to be “very limited.”
Republican Eric Wilson, who ran digital for Marco Rubio’s ’16 presidential campaign and for Ed Gillespie’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, also questioned whether Google would be able to effectively manage these new restrictions. “Google has been unable to enforce consistently its political ad ‘ban’ in Washington State since going into effect last year,” Wilson tweeted. “Not sure how it will manage a national ban.”
Widespread concern over the ad targeting changes at Google wasn’t universal as some strategists suggested a wait-and-see approach is in order.
Republican digital strategist Tate Holcombe said he expects that other platforms will step and that smaller ad networks will be a big part of filling whatever void ends up being left by Google’s decision. He also noted that pre-roll and other video options can still be effective in many instances.
“I think by 2020, we’ll adapt to this and be used to it,” Holcombe said. “I do think smaller races may end up suffering because the video piece will be more difficult for them. It will just be trickier to figure out the targeting.”
“It’s still very early,” said Damien Shirley of the Democratic digital firm Middle Seat Digital. He compared Google’s ad announcement to the tabs it added to Gmail back in 2013. “Everyone in the email space panicked,” Shirley recalled. “But at the end of the day, the changes weren’t as destructive as people thought.”