Google’s Print Ads are Anything But “Clear and Conspicuous”

Google – the one brand with arguably the most digital clout on the planet – is in hot water over an ad partnership in print. 

Yep, you may not have realized it (very few did) but recent magazine covers in Allure, GQ and W were shot using a Pixel phone, Google’s answer to the iPhone. That in itself isn’t a problem – photographers have to use something to take photos. If they want to use a Pixel, that’s fine.

At issue, according to Ephrat Livni writing in Quartz, is that Google paid publisher Conde Nast for the privilege of having their phone used for the shoots. And that’s got them in hot water with the FTC.

According Livni, the problem is that Google and Conde Nast failed to properly disclose the partnership, as mandated by federal ad guidelines.

“In advertising, the watchword is transparency,” explains the Federal Trade Commission. “Consumers need to know when they are looking at paid promotional materials.”

This kind of non-disclosed promotion is all over Instagram, with the FTC coming down hard on celebrity endorsements and social media influencers. And is poised to hold all brands to the same standards.

“If there is a material connection between your company and an endorser, disclose it,” the FTC explains on its website.  Livni tells us that a material connection, according to the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, is a relationship between the endorser and the seller that “might materially affect the weight or credibility a consumer gives the endorsement.”

“In other words, consumers need to know when a promotion is premised purely on admiration for a product and when payment or some kind of qui pro quo between the endorser and seller is at play,” Livni writes. And the tiny, barely visible interior notice of this doesn’t count as transparency.

It’s nice to see them called out on this. Yet there’s a larger “thing” going on here.

“As a consumer, you may wonder why businesses would even bother promoting products surreptitiously,” Livni continues. “What’s the point of an advertisement that doesn’t explicitly promote anything or even reveal itself as an advertisement? The point is influence, giving the impression that a product is being endorsed by a reputable source without arousing suspicion of motivations for promotion that an obvious ad naturally would in consumers. But that’s also precisely what the FTC is attempting to thwart with its endorsement guidelines.”

Back up a few lines and read that quote again …. “The point is influence, giving the impression that product is being endorsed by a reputable source.” 

That reputable source is a print magazine – and that’s great. The trust bump is real. And it’s smart on Google’s part; print ads are a lot more trusted than digital these days. But to Conde Nast, here’s a word of warning: Your trusted reputation is a hugely valuable asset. It’s why advertisers want to play with you in the first place. Don’t risk it by side skirting disclosure. That’s a surefire way to muddy the waters.

Yes, those covers look great. Google’s Pixel phone takes a great photo. So take it to the next level and be upfront about it. There’s a whole lot of value in transparency in today’s climate.