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

BY Colin Delany | Wednesday, June 9 2010

Originally published on Epolitics.com

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.

cpd