Google “Shared Endorsement” Ads: 1800s Advertising and Snake Oil Salesmen are Making a Comeback!

In the days of snake oil salesmen in the 1800s, prospective customers were told whatever was thought to make someone buy a product. Deceptions were rampant with false statements about products and goods and what they would do… how good they were for you…

Eventually this deceptive practice was banned and ethics in advertising and laws about false advertising were established in the 1900s by a more civil society who saw the deception for what it was and the harm it can do to consumers and businesses alike.

The Advertising Industry and its members have long had an unwritten code of ethics that we in the industry abide by and established several governing boards to field consumer complaints about supposed false advertising. The federal government and individual states have instituted legislation and hefty fines to prevent consumers from being scammed and told falsehoods about products. In fact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has written several sets of guidelines for advertisers to stay in compliance with the FTC Act and the regulations specifically surrounding  testimonial advertising, and the use of endorsements in ads.

Yet when it comes to Internet ads, technology appears to be more important than ethics and new media are not thought out thoroughly to look at all aspects and consequences of each media. Not enough thought is given to long-term ramifications nor to the integrity of the information offered.

Money is the key driver, with tech stocks being the most sought after rapid growth opportunities for investors.  Billions of dollars are at stake.  Minds are always at work trying to feverishly change the way ads are delivered to lure agencies and advertisers to drop millions of dollars into untested waters to ramp up revenue projections and sell more shares of stock at higher and higher rates.

Google is one company whose stock has soared recently with new offerings and higher revenue projections.  And part of the buzz is Google’s “Shared Endorsement” advertising offering.

Yet consumer deception is a click away, and it seems money and Google are the winners and the consumers and ethics in advertising are about to be the losers — again…

You see I have a major problem with this new “Shared Endorsement” Google Ad offering.  From what I read, if you have a Google + account (which 540 million or more users do from what I read in USA Today) and  you don’t opt out of their “Shared Endorsements” feature, you:

•  Give Google the rights to your personal image(s) online

•  Give away the photographer’s rights to the same photo(s) of you

•  Give away anyone else in your video’s rights to the use of their likeness

•  Give Google your copyright to any comments you put about products anywhere online

•  Give away your rights to reasonable compensation from Google and all companies who use your reviews and likeness in advertising materials of all kinds forever – present and future

• Give away your right to not be associated with a product or service.

• Give blanket access to your profile and browsing habits

Big deal so you say – it would be fun to see my face out there!  And my friends wouldn’t mind… Maybe I can make a career out of it!

Exactly. See this is the big problem I have with this “advertising” model. There will be people out there who want their face to be used so much that they will make up fake reviews and videos to get picked.

Then people will get paid under the table to fabricate good reviews to sell products. Just like the snake oil salesmen did in the 1800s. They will use specific keywords so algorithms so their comments are stronger and get picked out for the endorsement ads. They could violate copyright laws and use others’ comments for their own financial gain.

And if you are a celebrity or anyone of note, I would advise you not to write any reviews online or comment on products as what you put out there might be used for free and your paid endorsements ? – well why would anyone pay you if you are endorsing products for free!  There goes your revenue stream…

Why if enough people gave all their rights away to their own content advertisers wouldn’t have to pay much of anything!  Why photographers wouldn’t need to be paid, actors, advertising professionals – heck anyone can make an ad – right? Why if enough people did this the whole advertising industry would become unnecessary!

Uh – wow – no, it can’t become like that as this Google “Shared Endorsement” advertising is not real advertising. It is a gimmick. Period.

Let’s look at extremes – I will make up a scenario here…

You are Tiger Woods and you have a Google + account and you don’t know you have been signed up for this “Shared Endorsement” thing or your assistant forgot to uncheck a box in your settings, or there was a computer glitch and the setting didn’t get changed, and you make a comment online that you liked a specific golf club during a tournament – and it went viral on YouTube. Well if you didn’t opt out then Google could use that video or comment to sell advertising to the maker of the club and use you to promote their product.

Are you thinking more about this yet? It is an unlikely scenario but you get my point…

And who’s to say they have to use everything in context?  Maybe they take the good parts but leave out the bad things you didn’t like about a product?

Or you say great things about a hair product and they use the joke profile photo you put of yourself with frizzy hair with the comment?

Advertising of this nature is flawed in design. It is just a gimmick.  It shouldn’t really be called advertising. Technically it is word of mouth (WOM) which is more of a PR technique, and which can be an effective one at that – when left alone to be WOM and function as is should.

Now wait! You tell me – it has been proven consumers like these reviews of products and will use them in their buying decisions!  So why wouldn’t “Shared Endorsements” work?  Aren’t these the new kind of testimonial?

They are the new kind of “fake” testimonials in my opinion. People make comments in reviews many times when they haven’t really had the chance to use a product. As soon as a product is delivered one gets hounded to review what was just purchased. Chances are if you haven’t used the product for long you will like it better and that benefits the manufacturer or distributor of the product.

If you wait a bit you might find flaws in the product or it breaks down. Or you might notice a flaw that didn’t show up in the first 30 days.

So to base ads on that type of information is flawed on its face.

When these “Shared Endorsements” are put into ads, then they aren’t reviews any more, are they? They become testimonials. They are true endorsements.

And as such they are subject to the laws pertaining to testimonials and endorsements.

Now if you delve into the FTC Act itself you will find that there are pretty stringent laws pertaining to the use of endorsements and testimonials. And by you signing away your right to control your comments or information technically you are subjecting yourself to possible lawsuits.

There is a good article on the FTC website about the guidelines that need to be observed: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm. Take the time to check it out.

Now if you delve into this article you will see that certain disclosures have to be made in order to use endorsements.

For example you work for the local Apple store and you have an iPhone and so you write a glowing review. Well Apple’s corporate policy may not allow an employee to write reviews and this is a hypothetical example, but how would Google know?  Yes they have access to your profile information but whose information is complete or all truthful?

I don’t see disclaimers by Google saying that if you allow them to use you in “Shared Endorsements” that by agreeing to participate you guarantee you are not associated with a product nor get a financial incentive to do promote a product.

Or maybe your Mother owns a company that makes a product and you are biased.

Just the mere fact that this has not been addressed by Google leaves the door wide open for lawsuits.

And just because Google claims they will only distribute it to your friends doesn’t mean it could not be made public or sent as a joke, go viral — well I don’t have to tell you… you get the picture.

If you have taken the time to read this article to this point either you have an interest in advertising or are concerned about your privacy…

And by now you are probably shaking your head — like me — as it is hard to accept that in the 21st century a company would actually try to bring out the snake oil salesmen and practices of the 1800s that were banned in the 1800s.  Indeed we live in George Orwell’s 1984. And it gets scarier day by day…  Privacy?  Well it’s just about gone. The question is are you going to allow yourself to be part of the group giving up your privacy? I know I won’t.

 – Geri Konstantin