Freedom of advertising

posted by Jason Kottke Aug 29, 2002

Daryl Westfall, the creator of the thank you for financing global terror stickers writes in to say that his ad got pulled by Google. The ad in question reads:

A Full Tank Of Terrorism?
Controversial sticker educates them while they're standing at the pump!

Here's an excerpt from the letter he received from Google:

"At this time, Google policy does not permit the advertisement of 'Hate/anti' on our website. We also do not permit sites that sell these products to advertise on Google. As noted in our advertising terms and conditions, we reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site."

Others have called Google's rejection of ads "censorship", hoping to cash in on that term's Constitutional connotation, but Google has the right to reject whatever ad they want. It's just advertising and Google isn't the U.S. Government.

Because of Google's position as a nearly essential Web tool, it's unfortunate that they won't run this particular ad as is and I wish they'd change their mind, but they've got legal liability to worry about. Not running certain types of ads, even though some legitimate ads might get pulled unfairly, limits their liability. Hopefully Daryl can rephrase his ad and get it back on the site.

If you want to point fingers, point them instead at America's lawsuit-happy citizenry and corporations. The duels of yesteryear are outdated; there's plenty of satisfaction to be had in the courtroom and everyone from insurance companies to the families of tragedy victims to goofy Hollywood-backed cults to computer manufacturers to people too stupid to know that coffee is hot is glove-slapping the faces of anyone unlucky enough to get in the way.

Reader comments

EdAug 30, 2002 at 12:07AM

Jason: Before you point fingers at "stupid" sue-happy America, please get a complete picture about the infamous "frivolous" McDonald's case. See here and here for the full story.

Ben BarclayAug 30, 2002 at 1:16AM

As an English man, it is regarded as "typical american"* to sue anyone who makes you unhappy. I point you towards recent cases ppearing in the new where fat people sued burger chains, and failed students sued teachers. Both are examples of a country where getting your own way means making money from whoever gets in your way. A shame, because I thought that the sticker signified the rising intelligence in the States, showing how more people realise the futility of some of their country's actions.

*I realise this is a crass generalisation, in line with us Brits all drinking tea and living in cottages with rose gardens. So sue me.

Garrett MurrayAug 30, 2002 at 3:13AM

I think the google decision makes sense. It's unfortunate, but makes sense.

On a side note: I really, really hope these stickers are used in a smart fashion. There's nothing worse than someone making an ass out of themselves by sticking them in a strange place or otherwise attempting to draw attention to them unnaturally. The whole point of this campaign (I believe) is to use them exactly how they should be--casually and correctly placed so as not to stand out. The point isn't to be in anyone's face, but instead to face facts.

I just have a feeling I'm going to see one placed over the LCD at a pump or something, and that will be very disappointing. I would love to see one without actually seeing it, catching my eye as I fill my car with terror-fluid.

adrianAug 30, 2002 at 5:04AM

Garrett - would said sticker make you think twice about filling your car up and perhaps using another form of transport (say a bike)? If not then it's a cool comment but not really much more.

I fear that in situ stickers which are noticed will be ignored by the majority and admired for the tongue-in cheek factor by the remainder but will not really result in anyone thinking about what they're doing and changing their behaviour.

Finally, am I alone in noticing the irony that these stickers are made of vinyl (a petrochemical product) and so are themselves funding global terror?

tamimAug 30, 2002 at 5:42AM

Good for Google. If they had allowed this one in, at some point down the road they'd have to allow other "hate/anti" people in as well. We don't always agree with all the "hate/anti" people. Also, the stickers, which are in short supply, promote tresspassing and vandalism. The legal liabilities of that can financially sink Google. We must be careful with the "hate/anti"s we love so that in our love for them, we don't open doors for those that we dislike.

tim451Aug 30, 2002 at 6:45AM

Adrian makes a good point that vinyl is a byproduct of crude oil. Tamim is half-right about the stickers promoting vandalism, although there is a disclaimer on the website. That is about as effective as posting appz and serialz with a disclaimer that pirating software is illegal.

On the other hand, at some point down the road Google may *have* to allow other "hate/anti" people in as well. Think of it this way. If you are "for" something, a proponent, wouldn't you automatically be against its logical adversary? "Anti", even?

I just did a search on Google for "abortion" and "pro life". Both searches returned sponsored ads. Shall we call Google?

JohnAug 30, 2002 at 7:00AM

What exactly are Google's legal liabilities here?

Could some gas station really sue Google because someone bought stickers through the ad which were then placed on their pumps? That's ridiculous!

I think it's more about PR. Google doesn't want to be associated with something so controversial, especially given the current socio-political climate. Today I read about a recent survey in which 49% thought that the First Amendment went too far, considering the "war on terror."

rob adamsAug 30, 2002 at 7:44AM

If America is sue-happy (we are), it's because America is a society ruled by law (we are).

No less than 150-200 years ago, and some would say not even that far in the past, European nations (never mind Asia and Africa) were nations ruled by status, money, and everything but reason (manifested in justice).

I'd rather have a nation where doctors (not fat people) sue fast-food chains, rather than a country where i can't have my case heard because i don't have enough cash, or enough connections.

That the poor and uneducated can sue in America is a minor minus when compared to the alternative: oligarchy.


tamimAug 30, 2002 at 7:53AM

John, gas stations are in a legal business earning money by a means granted them by law. Big-Oil lawers can argue (successfully) that these stickers, which were illegally placed on the pumps, stopped people from buying their product, hence obstructing their legal means of income. Any and all parties responsible for such obstructions, including, but not limited to, parties that advertized/promote such tresspassing (Google), are liable for the income lost. One sentence in favor of Big-Oil can sink Google.

Rob Adams, three words: Orenthal James Simpson.

RamAug 30, 2002 at 8:03AM

The ads are back again on Google ,see update on Daryl Westfall's site.

jkottkeAug 30, 2002 at 9:20AM

get a complete picture about the infamous "frivolous" McDonald's case

Well, I guess that's not the best example to use in this case, although I would have put the woman's fault at more than 20%. McDonald's is a crappy company, no doubt about it. They know how to solve problems. Coffee too hot? Don't turn it down and admit you were wrong, call a lawyer instead.

SamAug 30, 2002 at 9:20AM

I'm happy the ads are back on Google.

I can see Googles point about the ad. If you quickly scanned Daryl's website, you might get the impression that he is Anti-Saudi, which could indicate some sort of racism. If I were Google, I wouldn't want racist ads.

However, a closer examination of the site would show that Daryl doesn't have a problem with people who are Saudi, but rather US foriegn policy, and its preferential treatment of Saudi Arabia. The stickers are satirical in nature, and the info on the site is political, even linking to various articles. Hence, not racist or anti people or companies.

While it would be a potential liability for google if some big oil company claimed lost profits from this, I don't think that will realistically happen. Stickers that mimic existing signage have been around for a long time, and are very popular. Even shirts and stickers that playfully emulate a corporate logo (MicroSuck shirts, Southwestern Hell stickers, etc.) slide by, because they are considered 'satire' which affords some legal protection.

The sole purpose of these stickers is not vandalism. Many people will vandalize things with them (I will, I admit), that is not the only use of the sticker. I'll probably put on on my computer, because people will see it, and laugh.

I also think that proper use (misuse?) of these stickers will be key to them being good satire. Placed over the LCD screen would get them discovered very quickly. Pasting them overtop of some existing warning signage could easily result in them staying around for months.

I had to fill up the tank on my scooter the other day (my only motorvehicle that I own, and which I only use when a bicycle isn't appropriate for the task at hand (carrying a passenger), and which gets 120mpg), I did some serious scoping out of the pumps, and I think I located a good spot that would look very natural for the stickers to be.

Anyway, this is all assuming Daryl can find a good sticker printer. :)


EugeneAug 30, 2002 at 9:21AM

The stickers generalize too much. Not all petroleum companies get their oil from the Middle East (Brazil anyone?) and Not all Middle Eastern Arab countries are terrorism-related.

A crude analogy I can think of for the stickers is the following scribbled on your IRS tax forms: "Thank you for financing government corruption."

jkottkeAug 30, 2002 at 9:26AM

What exactly are Google's legal liabilities here?

Probably not much in this specific instance. But on the whole, Google needs to protect themselves by not running any ads that are potentially offensive, dangerous, etc....anything that might get them in trouble.

I think it's more about PR. Google doesn't want to be associated with something so controversial, especially given the current socio-political climate.

That's a good point. Limiting their liability in the court of public opinion could be the primary driver in this case.

jakeAug 30, 2002 at 9:34AM

I'm surprised at the number of pro-Google responses to Jason's post. I don't think the sticker in question is an example of hate/anti speech, but even if it was, I believe that Google should still run the ad. It's not just about the right to free speech; Google is a private company and does not have the same obligation to protect our rights as the government or companies in regulated industries. To me, it's more about fair play- powerful companies can advertise on Google, even though their products and services may harm the rest of us. Why shouldn't a small company enjoy the same access to customers?

There is a powerful argument, being articulated more and more these days, that Google is currently enjoying a natural near-monopoly of the search industry, and therefore should be regulated. If it was regulated, at least the rules for which ads are permitted to run would be better articulated.

tamimAug 30, 2002 at 10:19AM

Jake, I am firmly in the back pocket of "Big-Google." Google makes me look smarter than I really am. Can't say the same for some two-bit-hack with a 1500 stickers to sell. It is a matter of principle and survivability that I stand by something that benefits me more. Google is an addiction I don't see I am overcoming anytime soon.

The ads are not for a product that conserves energy or is an innovative solution to the transportation crisis. They are stupid satirical stickers. Why are gas stations/Big-Oil any more responsible for "funding" terrorists than auto makers, power utilities, or producers of energy consuming gadgets? Why not make air-bags that have a note next to the SRS logo: "This car is a gasguzzler"?

Nothing this sticker-peddler couldn't have achieved with some well placed links on some of the more popular warblogs (Instapundit: 12-times more hits than Kottke, LGF: 3-5-times more hits than Kottke, Steven Den Beste: twice as many hits as Kottke) than trying to endanger Google with his ploy.

I am more willing to support an anti-Big-Auto/Big-Utility campaign than a backhand effort to bring down Google. Or something that even remotely endangers Google's existance. I don't own a car, and I have biked accross more landmark bridges and tunnels than anyone else commenting here. [Not that it makes my stance any stronger or claims any more credible.]

pbAug 30, 2002 at 11:27AM

I think this points out the danger of having just one choice of anything. If Google is the only search engine, their arbitrary acts of censorship have more weight than if there were good alternatives. I think Google does a lot of things right, but they have made some poor decisions. (Killing this ad is one of them.) I guess my real question is, why are all of the other search engines so crappy? Can't they see Google's market share?

SamAug 30, 2002 at 12:27PM

I am more willing to support an anti-Big-Auto/Big-Utility campaign than a backhand effort to bring down Google. Or something that even remotely endangers Google's existance.

I don't think that this is a 'backhanded attempt to bring down Google' at all! When did this turn into an attempt to bring down Google? Do you actually believe that a single ad for a vaugely controversial sticker is going to have any affect on a multi-million dollar, supremely penetrating, incredibly powerful company? They could get sued a hundred times for that one ad, and still be just fine. I don't even think people would sue for it. Daryl bought a lot of impressions, but not so many that its going to show up on the computer screens of everyone in America, causing international outrage against Google for hosting hate sticker ads.

Its just a sticker, and I think Daryl is aware of that. No one is claiming that this is a huge powerful campaign against big oil, its just a bit of interesting irony you can expose people to. Its humourous. Its controversial. Its fun.

If you don't think that stickers are how you want to inform people of your political beliefs, then thats fine. Its a text ad, just ignore it like the thousands of other text ads you see everyday, and subsequently ignore. Just because it is for a sticker, and not for a revolutionary energy saving device, doesn't mean its not a legit product.

Its not "Daryl vs. Google" hence "Daryl vs. Tamim, the Google fan." We aren't 'choosing sides' here. I love Google, and I love Daryl's stickers. If you don't love Daryl's stickers, that cool, they are just stickers after all. But don't hate them simply because you perceive them as a threat to Google.


barlowAug 30, 2002 at 1:29PM

Google's policy is a good one; plus, the the stickers are simply ridiculous. Every product one buys is shipped via some vehicle that runs on a petroleum product. Technically you can't even buy a stick of gum that doesn't "finance terrorism" in that looser sense, but that should serve as a deterrent to chewing gum only for radicalized twenty-somethings.

DerekAug 30, 2002 at 2:03PM

that dude's dumb. i wonder if he's getting his vinyl stickers shipped to him (in 12-14 days) via solar car or bike messenger... because if he's using USPS, UPS, FedEx, Airborne, DHL, etc., someone will have to tell the dolt they'll be using oil during transport. what a hypocritical idiot. but i think google shouldn't get in to the business of denying ads -- especially if in the process it denies them hard-earned CASH to keep its service free to me!

SamAug 30, 2002 at 3:52PM

Your suggestions that his campaign is dumb because it too relies partially on the use of petroleum products is a logical fallacy. Its called 'pseudorefutation' to claim that someone's actions imply that their message is invalid.

Also, remember that arguments aren't black or white. Believe it or not, there is a shade of grey. The use of petroleum is a part of our society, and deeply integrated. The question at hand is the concept of SCALE.

I think its OK to use petroleum. However, I think its wise to use as little as possible for getting the job done, and that its wise to not let our need for it affect foriegn policy in ways that undermine the freedom and safety of Americans, and people abroad.

I drive motorvehicles. However, I drive a very efficient motorvehicle (120mpg, Aprilia Scooter). I also bike whenever practical. I use plastic bags, but I recycle them. I enjoy the benefits of petroleum, but do my best to use it responsibly, and in moderation. If people didn't drive themselves to work each morning in a vehicle that gets 8mpg, throw away ton after ton of recyclable plastic, and other such frivolous uses of petrol, then our country's need for petroleum would be less drastic, and the pressure to start wars over oil wouldn't exist. Our foriegn policy about oil could be the same as it is for other products. If we disagreed with Saudi Arabias actions, we could choose to not do business with them, instead of being forced (by our own needs) to do business with them, even when we know that the money finances global terror.

The fact that the US has a HUGE, all consuming need for more oil is the reason that we are willing to take drastic steps when securing our supply. We are addicts, who are willing to push people around, put ourselves in mortal danger, and otherwise abuse those around us in order to fulfill the addiction. If we were more responsible users, we wouldn't be so dangerous to ourselves, and those around us.

The stickers don't argue for people to stop using any and all petroleum products, they remind people that their use, in the manner that we use them, is currently financing global terrorism.

Anyway, if you don't like the sticker, don't buy em', but don't bash it if you don't understand what's really being talked about.


Ry RivardAug 30, 2002 at 8:48PM

Google has, like it or not, become the de facto gateway to the Internet. If a site isn't searched by Google, it doesn't exist.

Of course the ads are a different thing entirely, but there is nothing more destructive about this sticker site than say adult websites, and this is a lot more thought provoking. For me, the sticker doesn't cross any lines, nor does it appear to constitute hate--rather it seems to be another voice wanting to be heard; a nother product being sold, and another way for Google to make some money.

It is, despite what ends up happening, encouraging that people are so responsive, because Google really does need watched. It is the web's current alpha-omega, but too many people just sigh and search. We all need to be very concious of Google's actions.

The big question is: What right does Google have to pass moral judgments? Where do those judgments begin and where will they end.

DarylOct 06, 2002 at 12:02PM

Hey, I know I'm way behind the times in responding to this.

Honestly, I'm not some anti-oil nut. If I did, I'd be printing these on 100% recycled paper and using soy ink. The primary point of these stickers, really, was to point out the hypocrisy of the "Drug Money Supports Terror" ad campaign. To finger some kid smoking a J and labelling him a "terrorist supporter" while championing an American's 'right' to own the biggest, fattest gas-waster on the road...this is the hypocrisy that was the brainchild for this sticker.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.