We advertising lawyers take our work very seriously. No matter the claim, we know that it must be truthful and appropriately substantiated. So we work hard with our clients in reviewing their advertising to ensure that their business interests in selling their products and promoting their brands, and consumers' interest in truth and transparency, are well-aligned. But, let’s face it, advertising law is not usually at the forefront of what most people think of public interest work.
Except when it is.
This week, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) wrote to the CEO of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, urging him to take action against deceptive advertisements on its platform and ensure that users receive accurate information when searching for abortion services. As announced by Senator Warner, the letter “comes on the heels of an investigation that reveals how Google regularly fails to apply disclaimer labels to misleading ads by anti-abortion clinics." Although Google had implemented a labeling tool so that users could see facilities verified to actually provide abortion services, the tool is not preventing the proliferation of false and misleading ads on the Google platform according to the Senator's letter.
The letter notes that, according to an investigation by Bloomberg News and the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “depending on the search term used, Google does not consistently apply disclaimer labels to ads by anti-abortion clinics…Specifically, researchers found that queries for terms such as “Plan C pills,” “pregnancy help,” and “Planned Parenthood” often returned results with ads that are not labeled accurately.” Further, ads placed by anti-abortion organizations -- so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" -- also often include terms for services that they don’t actually provide: like “free abortion pills” and “first trimester abortion". Accordingly, the letter urges Google “to take proactive action to rectify these and any additional issues surrounding misleading ads, and help ensure users receive search results that accurately address their queries and are relevant to their intentions.”
As the letter notes, at a time when many states are narrowing the window for when an abortion can be lawfully obtained, every day truly counts. Ensuring that pregnant people get truthful and accurate information about the services available to them is critical, and getting the platforms to enforce their own prohibitions on misleading advertising is an important step. But, as we advertising lawyers know, there is other recourse to address false and misleading claims, deceptive door openers, bait-and-switch ads and the other tools used by the unscrupulous, particularly when vulnerable populations are targeted. It is this advertising lawyer’s hope that the tools of my trade will be a part of the effort to ensure that reproductive rights -- not to mention the health and safety of pregnant people -- are protected.