As coronavirus spread around the world in February, Google decided to ban most nongovernmental advertising about the outbreak in an effort to defeat misinformation, fraud and scams. But Democrats say the Google ban does something else: It allows the Trump administration to run ads promoting its response to the crisis while denying Democrats the chance to run ads criticizing it.
Prominent Democratic PACs in recent days have funneled millions of dollars into television ads accusing Trump of mishandling the coronavirus crisis. But staffers of several Democratic nonprofits and digital ad firms realized this week that they would not be able to use Google's dominant ad tools to spread true information about President Trump's handling of the outbreak on YouTube and other Google platforms. The company only allows PSA-style ads from government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and trusted health bodies like the World Health Organization. Multiple Democratic and progressive strategists were rebuked when they tried to place Google ads criticizing the Trump administration's response to coronavirus, officials within the firms told Protocol.
"We're in the middle of the defining event of this election and potentially a generation," said Mark Jablonowski, the chief technology officer and managing partner of DSPolitical, a top digital ad firm that works with Democratic campaigns and progressive causes.
"To not allow political candidates to mention or discuss COVID-19 is something that has the potential to dramatically bolster Trump's and Republicans' chances of reelection," he said.
Jablonowski said his firm had to take Google off the table on Monday as it worked to place a six-figure ad campaign around the latest economic stimulus package. The advertisement slammed Congress for not going far enough to protect health care workers, Jablonowski said, declining to name the client.
"Normally, we'd love to be able to use YouTube as part of an ad buy like this," he said.
One Democratic strategist said his digital firm had already gone live in recent days with several ad campaigns related to coronavirus on Facebook, which allows most political ads about the disease. "As we were getting ready to start broadening [the ad campaign] into Google, we reached out to Google to clarify what their rules were going to be," said the strategist, who requested anonymity in order to maintain his relationship with Google. A Google ad representative told them they would not be able to place the ads.
Josh Koster, a managing partner at D.C.-based digital advertising firm Chong & Koster, acknowledged the need for some restrictions but would not abide the total ban on political ads.
"I totally understand if they want to ban for-profit entities from talking about coronavirus," he said. "They're trying to avoid people price-gouging face masks and selling fake cures, and generally exploiting the crisis for profit. But that's an entirely separate use-case from nonprofit organizations trying to spread accurate information about the situation and holding elected officials accountable for the life-and-death decisions they are currently making."
The Trump campaign and Republicans across the country also are not allowed to run advertisements right now. But the democratic strategists argue that the CDC and White House's messaging, which are permitted by Google, fall under Trump's purview.
"For Google to basically say that the Trump administration is the only entity that is allowed to talk about the most important issue in politics really puts their thumb on the scale of the incumbent president and against anyone who is really looking to challenge him," said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide Interactive, a digital marketing firm for Democratic political organizations and progressive nonprofits.
A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the company proactively instituted the policy at the beginning of February when it noticed a flurry of advertisers throwing their messages onto coronavirus-related terms in order to drive traffic. While Google announced the ban in general terms earlier this month, its effect on political messaging is only now being recognized.
"We are currently blocking ads related to coronavirus under our sensitive events policy, with exception of government PSAs on important health information," a Google spokesperson told Protocol in a statement. "This policy applies to all advertisers equally, including all political advertisers."
The struggle between Democratic campaigns and Google over political ads is the latest in an ongoing controversy over how big tech companies handle political advertising on their platforms. Google last year significantly pared down the ability for advertisers to microtarget their political messaging. The move drew bipartisan pushback from every major Democratic campaign arm, top digital firms, as well as Republican campaigns, including Trump's.
"Google has eliminated a lot of the targeting methodologies that really are instrumental in how Democratic campaigns operate," Jablonowski said.
Strategists are still allowed to run political ads about COVID-19 on Facebook, which has long attracted scrutiny over its permissive policies around paid content from politicians and campaigns.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company has not implemented a policy that prevents political advertising that references the virus, but it will take down coronavirus-related content from any user — even politicians — that could cause harm in the real world.
Google expressed openness to one day changing the policy, saying it is continually evaluating its rules in a dynamic situation and could reevaluate in a few months.
Until then, the strategists say they are completely overhauling their messaging as they strive to push back on President Trump and his administration during a crisis that has forced millions of Americans into their homes, sent the economy spiraling, and infected hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. months before the presidential election.
"I've had several different clients that have totally had to rethink the way that their political strategy is working right now," said another Democratic strategist, who also requested anonymity. "They've had to toss out the old playbook and come up with a whole bunch of different issues."
On Tuesday, Protocol identified one Democratic big spender who was apparently allowed to run advertisements about coronavirus over the course of several days at the beginning of March: former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. An expensive ad spot titled "Pandemic," which ran before Bloomberg dropped out of the race at the beginning of March, warned that the U.S. was unprepared for coronavirus — and touted Bloomberg as the leader who could take it on.
When contacted about the ads on Tuesday, Google said they were in violation of the policy and have since been removed. The company says it has taken down over 50 million ads in the past few weeks for violating its coronavirus-specific sensitive events policy.
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Meanwhile, legions of Democratic and Republicans lawmakers have increasingly taken to Facebook in recent weeks to run advertisements about coronavirus and how it's affecting their districts. Most of the advertisements, from lawmakers including Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., promote links to the CDC or local health bodies to disseminate resources about COVID-19.
"Google should remove content that misleads the public as it relates to health issues surrounding COVID-19," said Kaplan. "But shutting down all paid political advertising on the subject, including ad content that is 100% truthful, is completely irresponsible."