Naked Medicine

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Misleading Healthcare Ads and False Claims

Google has made astronomical profit from its advertisement programs, at least $900 million. Certainly, Google’s Adsense/Adwords services has benefitted both website publishers and businesses alike. Nakedmedicine.com takes advantage of Google’s Adsense service to display contextual (relevant) ads that Google serves up from advertisers, and when visitors click through to products and services that they are interested in, this website benefits by gaining a few cents in the “Website Operations and Maintenance” kitty. Google also serves up text-based, contextual ads next to key word search results.

When you mix free speech, lax advertising content policy enforcement, and opportunistic merchants, you come face to face with asking where the buck stops when consumers are barraged with misleading healthcare ads and false claims for miracle cures.

Psoriasis Now Michael Paranzino at Psoriasis Cure Now has become frustrated enough with the number of misleading advertisements on Google that in June 2006 he sent Google a letter requesting Google to enforce its policy against promotion of psoriasis “cures” with misleading or false claims.

In our email correspondence, with the establishment of a Google advertisement content policy, and given Mr. Parazino’s observation of Google’s lack of enforcement of its advertisement policy, Mr. Paranzino asked a very good question:

“So why does Google have the policy at all?”

Mr. Paranzino was referring to the following clause within Google’s content guidelines:

Miracle Cures – Advertising is not permitted for the promotion of miracle cures, such as ‘Cure cancer overnight!’

Mr. Paranzino is at the helm of Psoriasis Now, a non profit, 501 (c)(3) organization focused on obtaining federal research funds for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis and ensuring access for treatments in these conditions. Psoriasis Now was particularly offended by 9 different ads with what may be considered false and misleading claims appearing next to search results for “psoriasis”, including several with the the word “cure” in the ad.

Currently, there is no cure for psoriasis, and the condition is believed to be a result of various immunomodulatory pathways and related genes. Psoriasis Now receives sponsorship from Genetech, a biotechnology company that manufactures and markets a psoriasis drug. You can find the sponsorship logo and link at the bottom left corner of Psoriasis Now’s current homepage.

Besides calling Google on its content policy enforcement, Mr. Paranzino made an even smarter move by comparing its search result ads with those from Yahoo, which has recently entered the Google-dominated contextual text ad market. Mr. Paranzino publicly “applaud{ed} Yahoo! for its practice and look forward to Google enforcing its policy to protect both its users and its corporate image.”

Nothing like tapping into the ideals of a company to get its people to act. After all, Google was founded on its premise, “Don’t Be Evil.” I don’t want to go off topic here, so I’ll leave Google’s China Censorship debate to journalists and BusinessWeek.

Mr. Paranzino has not yet heard from Google about his concern, but he’s preparing to reach out to other patient advocacy groups that are likely to observe similar false- and misleading ads displaying next to Google search results for conditions like diabetes and multiple sclerosis. I’ve personally blocked several outlandish and dangerous claims from ads served up on my mental health website, a site that I’ve operated since 1998 but only recently began incorporating Google ads and other text link ads. Publishers can use the competitive ad filters to block offensive ads although the function suggests publishers block competitor ads. However, we cannot block out false and misleading claims made by ads appearing next to key word searches because these are served up directly through Google’s search results.

Mr. Paranzino shares a sentiment I had early on when I wrote about Google’s Health Coop Effort. What would Google do about conflicts of interest where ads are concerned? I can appreciate the need for advertising, and not all advertisers of healthcare products make false or misleading claims. One may even say that advertisements can alert to consumers to useful products and services they may otherwise not know about. On the other hand, a few bad apples can spoil the entire basket, and in healthcare, with potentially dangerous consequences.

I’ll be interested to learn how Google responds to this one.

NakedMedicine.com’s Search Results
I did a keyword search for “psoriasis” on both Google.com and Yahoo.com and captured the screenshots of the search results as well as the sponsored ads. Click on each image for larger picture.

On Google:
Google Search for Psoriasis Expanded Ad Links Page on Google Search Results

On Yahoo:
Yahoo Search Results for Psoriasis Expanded Ad Links Sidebar on Yahoo Search Results

I do want to note that Yahoo has some ads that Google also displayed. Since Yahoo text ads are still in “beta”, it may be more active in filtering out misleading ads. The real test and comparison in ad quality will be seen when Yahoo fully releases its text ad functions to web publishers.

FEEDBACK

2006-10-2 @ 12:10:59 am by Jeanne Sather

I had a similar frustrating experience with Google:

If you search for a cancer-related topic on Google, up pops a sponsored link such as the one selling a “New Coral Calcium Complex From Okinawa,” which, according to the ad, is a cure for cancer and the reason Okinawans live so long.

I sent a letter to CEO Dr. Eric E. Schmidt by snail mail and an e-mail to the PR department that I asked to be forwarded to Schmidt.

The letter said, in part:

It is EXTREMELY irresponsible of Google to accept [this] . . . sponsored link to run on pages where a user searches for “cancer.”

If you are a medical doctor, then you know this is bogus. You probably also know that the people of Okinawa are long-lived because of a diet that includes about three or four times as many servings of fruits and vegetables (real food, not supplements) as the recommended “five a day” we Americans try to eat.

You should be ashamed of yourself for accepting this kind of advertising. . . .

I received a very polite reply from a woman identified only as “Heather from the GoogleAdWords Team” that said, in part:

Google believes strongly in freedom of expression and therefore offers broad access to content across the Web without censoring results. . . . You may be aware that a different set of laws and regulations apply to commercial speech (advertising) than to the search results we show when you do a Google search. As a business, Google must make decisions about where we draw the line in regards to the advertising we accept, both from a legal and company values perspective. . . .

Since I received this letter, Google has announced that it will hire a third-party company to verify online pharmacies before allowing them to advertise on the site. It’s not clear, however, whether this will include only online pharmacies, or if it will also include companies that sell unregulated products like the marine-grade coral.

Write to Google, ask them to stop accepting ads for bogus products that prey on the hopes of people who are dangerously ill. Here’s Heather’s e-mail address: adwords-pr@google.com.

Updated: June 30, 2013 — 8:08 am

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