Google vs. Michael Moore's "Sicko"

A Google sales rep says she erred in panning Michael Moore's movie on a corporate blog. But she'd still like firms to buy Google ads to challenge the filmmaker.


Farhad Manjoo
July 3, 2007 1:59AM (UTC)

Lauren Turner, an ad sales rep at Google, isn't a fan of Michael Moore's new healthcare documentary. "Sicko," she believes, "attacks health insurers, health providers, and pharmaceutical companies by connecting them to isolated and emotional stories of the system at its worst." It paints the industry as "money and marketing driven" while failing "to show healthcare's interest in patient well-being and care." Turner is entitled to her opinion, of course -- so entitled that on Friday morning, she posted her thoughts on Google's "Health Advertising Blog." And Google, she told the healthcare industry, was willing to join them in their fight against Michael Moore.

"Whatever the problem, Google can act as a platform for educating the public and promoting your message," Turner wrote. By placing ads on Google and its "ever-expanding content network," healthcare companies could inform the public of "the industry's numerous prescription programs, charity services, and philanthropy efforts."

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You can bet her post sparked an outcry. Was Google siding with industry over the charged issue of healthcare in America? It sure seemed so, and in the most dishonest manner, too -- by helping big companies cloud the debate with search-engine targeted P.R. puffery.

But no -- it was all a big mistake! Forty-eight hours after posting her pitch, Turner put up another missive explaining that she'd erred in offering a personal movie review on a corporate blog. As a company, she explained, Google doesn't have an opinion either way on healthcare in America. Google's opinion, instead, is about marketing. The company believes that

advertising is an effective medium for handling challenges that a company or industry might have. You could even argue that it's especially appropriate for a public policy issue like healthcare. Whether the healthcare industry wants to rebut charges in Mr. Moore's movie, or whether Mr. Moore wants to challenge the healthcare industry, advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue.

Talk about an apology that offers no comfort. OK, so Google doesn't hate "Sicko." But it wants us to believe that we should resolve public policy disputes through search marketing? Advertising is no longer just for selling soap -- it's for democracy, too.

Note, first, the irony: Michael Moore accuses the industry of throwing up a haze of marketing, P.R. and lobbying to hide its practices, and Google tells Big Healthcare to respond by buying up more ads. The other problem is Google's implementation of so-called ad-based "democratic" discussion. The company has long strictly censored its search ads, most famously when Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, bought spots to promote her personal blog (on which she'd called the actor John Malkovich a "vomitous worm"). The company pulled her ads because Roddick's site violated Google's anti-"anti" policy -- Google won't run ads that advocate "against any organization or person (public, private, or protected)," its ad content guidelines state.

It's unclear whether anyone's opinion on healthcare in America -- nor any other debate worth having -- could slide under these guidelines. How can you express a public policy thought without being anti? But even if such a non-anti debate could occur, isn't Lauren Turner overlooking a key problem -- that an ad-based policy discussion rewards folks with deep pockets, not those with better ideas? It's like she's taken democracy lessons from the Supreme Court; free speech is for folks who've got money to buy it.

Many observers will see this flap as yet another example of the dangers of corporate blogging. Google allows its employees to write up their thoughts, and then someone goes and says something that embarrasses the company. But Turner's gaffe points toward what has to be the feeling inside Google's ad sales department. The company makes nearly all its money on marketing, so every public controversy is a potential moneymaker. Google will take no opinion on healthcare in America -- it's happy as long as each side buys ads to fight each other. (Just so long as no one's anti.)

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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