Advertising your way out of a problem

Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch criticizes the Google blogger’s use of Sicko to pitch ads for the healthcare industry. Why is this a bad idea? In his post, Arrington says it’s because the topic is controversial, “Millions of Americans have a serious problem with the way health care is handled in this country, and such a polarized topic is hardly one in which a company like Google wants to take a stand. And if they did take a stand, it would be with Moore.” In a comment further down in the thread, he goes further, alleging that the move is unwise because it will “step on certain toes” in the Bay Area. Arrington’s implication is that as a company gets bigger, its bloggers need to refrain from controversy and toe the line with respect to politically correct conventional wisdom.
Ross Mayfield is closer on with his critique of the blogger’s statement that Google advertising is a “democratic” way of spreading the word about the good side of your industry. Advertising isn’t democratic, first of all because it costs money, and second because advertising messages are one way and don’t allow readers to talk back.
Building on Ross’ point, what’s worst about Lauren Turner’s post — from Google’s perspective — isn’t that it expresses an opinion about a controversial topic (the health care industry really isn’t that bad), or that it overestimates the democracy of online advertising. It’s that advertising is presented as the way out of a PR dilemma that caused at least in part by real problems.
The classic lesson of contemporary PR — from the Exxon Valdez to the Tylenol poisoning to John Mackey of Whole Foods taking on Michael Pollan’s critique of “industrial organic” — is that when there’s bad press that has some merit, you should honestly take on the critics, and acknowledge the problems, and make changes. You can’t just whitewash your way out of a scandal.
Given the number of uninsured people in the US, the statistics about infant mortality and lifespan and healthcare cost, there’s clearly a problem. that is not going to be fixed by pictures of smiling grandmas and cute babies. You can agree with Michael Moore’s solution, or like his filmmaking style, or neither. (Disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie because Moore’s style often bugs me, but I probably agree with his conclusion). Regardless, the US healthcare system has problems and it can’t just advertise its way out.
As a provider of advertising services, Google is ill-advised to market their services as a way to escape a well-deserved bad reputation.

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