Is it Unethical for BP to Buy Google Ads on Oil Spill-Related Keywords?

Also published on The Huffington Post and techPresident

Minor scuffle in the online communications world: BP has purchased Google Ads on search terms related to the Gulf oil spill (for example: “oil spill”), with its ads showing up at the top of the results column whenever people look for those keywords. The resulting landing page is neatly scrubbed of most oily nastiness, putting a very bright face on the company’s clean-up work and avoiding discussion of BP’s ultimate corporate responsibility. Unethical? Or just distasteful?

The argument against BP’s search campaign has two main two aspects: first, some articles have claimed that people often don’t discriminate between organic and paid search results, even though the paid ads are in a different color and marked as “sponsored links.” This tendency could lend extra credibility to BP’s link, since it shows up at the top of the search results list, making it an “Orwellian” attempt to control the public dialogue (a view amplified by media coverage saying that the company “bought search terms” rather than “bought ads related to search terms). But again, the ads are marked as “sponsored,” and BP could have avoided the critique almost entirely by purchasing only sidebar ads rather than ones that appear above the organic search results.

The second argument is more visceral, that BP’s whitewashing is hypocritical and inherently wrong:

If buying a top-level Google AdWord is a sin, it is certainly at the bottom of a very long list. But when you click on the official BP website link and see the lovely, perfectly white beaches on the home page, it’s hard not to get mad. I marvel at the haunting parallel between BP’s handling of oil and their handling of public communications …

While I definitely see where the critics are coming from, I suspect that BP would be guilty of corporate communications malpractice if it DIDN’T buy the relevant search terms and try to get an unfiltered message out to the public. Its opponents are certainly leveraging the web to rally support against the company, and it’s simply not fair to ask BP to stay silent in the largest communications forum in the world. Yes, the BP site is infuriating when you consider it in context of the company’s overall attempts to minimize the spill and dodge responsibility from the start, but from a free speech point of view, BP has every right to try to put lipstick on that pig. And the $10k per day it’s estimated to be spending on search ads is only a tiny drop in a very large bucket compared with what the company will end up shelling out for the cleanup, so the ads themselves aren’t exactly taking noticeable resources away from the Gulf.

The effectiveness of BP’s online outreach and its overall $50 million PR blitz is another question entirely, since it’s up against the reality (and the imagery) of millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico (plus, it’s up against its own CEO’s big mouth). Corporate spin attempts can only overwhelm so much bad news, and perhaps one reason that BP’s search ads don’t bother me so much is that I don’t think they’re really going to matter a whole lot. The real world has a nasty habit of intruding on our attempts to paint a pretty picture of it, and this is one oil painting that doesn’t look good to anyone. Best of luck, BP — I suspect you’re going to need it.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it even possible to do what this guy at Mother Earth News is suggesting?

    Still, it has drawn attack. If company execs were smart, BP should have insisted on a sidebar ad rather than a top-level ad. Studies have shown that many people have trouble discerning the difference between a paid and a natural Google search result in the main column. So the company has opened itself up to yet another allegation of public trickery.

  • Hi Stan, good question. I think it comes down to cost — if you pay enough, your ads can end up above the main content column rather than in the sidebar. I did a quick search and didn’t see anything definite about it, though. When I get a minute, I’ll ping a friend at Google and ask.

  • I’m with you, Colin – I don’t see why BP shouldn’t be communicating as often as possible. And if you’re really looking for information about the oil spill, BP’s own page is part of the puzzle.

    I will say that their communications strategy could be more open transparent – tracking the workers involved in the cleanup, etc. instead of commercials with their clearly-not-from-Louisiana CEO. But that’s more global strategy than tactics.

  • @cpd I recently left Google’s political advertising team to launch a digital consulting business. Top-level and sidebar ads run in the same auction, with top-level placement for ads with highest CTR – must meet a certain threshold or else no ads appear at the top.

    I see no problems with BP running ads, but they make the mistake of driving traffic to a typical PR response page that’s just outdated. As Jim suggests, they could be doing so much more with landing pages and tools that are truly informative and helpful, not just gloss. BP is doing the same thing, with the same mistakes, on Youtube:

  • Colin,

    Thoughtful post, as usual, especially your point that avoiding AdWords amounts to shareholder malpractice.

    One quibble, though. You write: “BP could have … purchas[ed] only sidebar ads rather than ones that appear above the organic search results.”

    Unless Google has changed its procedures, all ads begin on the sidebar, and the only way for them to move to the center top (“above the organic search results”) is if enough people click on them. Incidentally, this is the beauty of Google: you can’t game the system.