Facing mounting pressure to crack down on misinformation campaigns, Google implemented a new policy aimed at misleading healthcare ads, with revolutionary evidence-based treatments—like those provided by multiple SPM clients—unreasonably caught in the dragnet. Though the new policy posed an unexpected challenge for healthcare marketers, SPM’s media team had the expertise to confront and resolve the issue quickly and effectively.

What is the core challenge?

The sweeping policy aims “to prohibit advertising for unproven or experimental medical techniques,” applying across all ad serving platforms, with particular emphasis on “unproven or experimental medical techniques,” including stem cell therapy, cellular (non-stem) therapy, and gene therapy.

This wide-reaching policy has unreasonably targeted revolutionary treatments (some of which are FDA-approved, such as CAR T-Cell Therapy) and critical clinical trials in this sweeping judgement.

As a result of this policy change, advertisers across the healthcare industry, including SPM, have reported widespread ad disapprovals.

Is this part of a larger trend?

Google’s crackdown on misleading healthcare ads is part of a larger trend among tech giants facing mounting pressure to take more responsibility for the content that appears on their platforms–whether paid or organic.

In recent months, tech giants have staked out a wide spectrum of positions related to countering misinformation.

Earlier this month, Twitter announced a full ban on political advertising, responding to charges the social platform facilitated election interference by foreign governments. Meanwhile, Facebook steadfastly defended its position to allow politicians to lie in campaign ads, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg stating, “In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news.”

Turning back to healthcare, it is widely acknowledged now that Facebook played a significant role in spreading misinformation that fueled the anti-vaccination movement that has been associated with a rise in measles cases, among others. Google had been the subject of intense criticism for allowing dubious medical practices to spread via organic search results.

For these reasons, it’s understandable tech platforms would seek a more active role in protecting consumers from deceptive or harmful medical treatments, just as Google did in this case.

Why is this controversial?

Nevertheless, Google’s announcement was justifiably met with an outcry of criticism from established medical research institutions that provide life-saving treatments and the advertisers who work with them, including SPM.

“Google’s advertising platforms play a crucial role putting valuable and relevant information in front of consumers who have revealed intent to learn more about symptoms and treatment for serious and life-threatening medical conditions,” SPM VP Group Media Director Kara Rozek said. “If consumers can’t see that they have options for treatment beyond those that Google has approved, they won’t be able to make the most informed decision possible for their health and well-being.”

There is more at stake than helping healthcare consumers find relevant and reliable information about health conditions and potential treatments. A recent study observed how searches related to health increased in the weeks before a visit for emergency care, possibly providing an opportunity to use Google search behavior in predictive modeling.

Finding a resolution: SPM’s approach

There is reason to be hopeful this new policy will eliminate truly bad actors and leave room for legitimate medical research centers to share valuable information through Google’s ad platforms.

In the same blog post published to the Google Help page, Google Policy Advisor Adrienne Biddings acknowledged the importance of fostering pioneering research for life-saving medical treatment. “We know that there are good actors in this space as well, doing important research that may lead to major advances in medicine,” she said. “We’ll continue to allow advertising for research happening in this space for clinical trials and the ability for clinicians to promote their research findings to the public.”

In this latest attempt to eliminate ads for un-tested medical treatments, Google seems to have taken an approach that introduces a blanket ban while leaving the burden of proof on advertisers to appeal individually for special approval.

Agencies like SPM were in a good position to appeal these ad disapprovals thanks to the accumulation of specialized knowledge that comes from working across a full portfolio of clients.

Individual advertisers, such as single hospitals or even health systems, may have found themselves less-equipped and with less robust relationships to successfully navigate the complex support hierarchy of a tech giant of Google’s size.

At SPM, our goal to resolve these constraints for our clients required us to elevate our concerns within the Google support network. Google reps had initially advised advertisers to completely remove stem cell/gene therapy keywords from landing pages to be approved for serving ads. Aside from the tedious work required to update landing page copy, this would have had a detrimental impact for organic SEO activity as well. One SPM client, for example, would have lost up to 2,000 potential leads for a life-saving gene therapy treatment.

Once we had Google’s alignment, it still took three days to get our ads approved under the new policy.

“SPM’s media team was able to promptly resolve our clients’ disapprovals thanks to our deep experience and well-established relationships with Google reps. Our team knew who to contact, what to ask for, and, when appropriate, how to advocate for our clients,” said Digital Media Director Jorge Cordova.

Taking all of this into account, SPM recommends that advertisers and agency partners take the following steps to whitelist ads across all Google properties:

  • Immediately contact Google reps or support and emphasize how these campaigns support evidence-based treatments that are conducted at well-respected medical research centers.
  • Don’t necessarily accept the first resolution at face value. As we saw in this case, in the end it wasn’t necessary to change landing page copy after all.
  • Be prepared to provide links to landing pages that confirm treatments are a) research-based, and b) research is being conducted on-site.
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