Google Fights for Underdog Candidates (And More Profits)

The search giant is lobbying the FEC for an election ad exemption that could bring in a bonanza of AdWords cash.

Google bumper sticker


The majority of Google’s revenue comes from AdWords, its flagship pay-per-click advertising product that brought in $23 billion last year. Now, the Internet behemoth is looking to increase those earnings by wading into the tricky world of election law.

On August 5, Google filed a brief with the Federal Elections Commissions (FEC) for an exemption from campaign finance disclosure rules. Under current law, sponsors of campaign ads must disclose their names, affiliations, and contact information in certain instances. We’ve all experienced this during elections when politicians conclude their muckraking campaign spots with the hurried message: “I’m so-and-so, and I approve this message.”

“But there are a few exceptions to the rule,” writes Politico, “such as advertisements delivered via text message or bumper sticker, for example–where the FEC recognizes a ‘small items’ exemption–ads for which a disclaimer just isn’t practical.” Google is hoping that its AdWords platform falls under this same “small item” exemption.

Google claims such regulation could jeopardize AdWords as a tool for lesser-known candidates. It wants “confirmation” that its ads–which contain a maximum of just 95 characters–do not require such disclaimers. “For candidates who begin the campaign with low name recognition, [attracting potential supporters] is not an easy task … many of these candidates have turned to AdWords to help,” writes Marc Elias and Jonathan Berkon, counsel to Google.

The pair point out that more than half of online voters use “portal news services” such as Google to learn about candidates. “An underdog candidate running on a strong environmental platform, for example, can attract potential supporters to her website by creating text ads with keywords such as ‘effects of global warming’ or ‘support cap and trade.'”

“Eliminating this medium would prevent under-funded candidates from reaching potential supporters on the Internet and would benefit the well-funded candidates who could afford expensive television advertisements,” the brief reads. “For under-funded campaigns who cannot afford to spend money on expensive–or ineffective–advertising, there is no viable alternative.” Google also offers a solution beyond the exemption: That a disclaimer listed on the campaign website would satisfy any disclosure rules.


It may seem a little dry, but don’t underestimate the potential consequences of this exemption. Google is trying to grind out an important precedent: “[Due to] severe space limitation, a text ad is fundamentally different from a television or newspaper advertisement,” its lawyers claim.

So are text ads fundamentally different? Don’t newspapers face similar space constraints? Aren’t the AdWords constraints more arbitrary? What’s stopping Google from increasing the word count cap on its AdWords product? The brief cites Yahoo and Bing as having similar maximums, but can’t those search engines just as easily increase their caps? This is the Internet–real estate is infinite.

This filing is only the latest example of Google attempting to avoid government oversight. Only this week, for example, Google and Verizon released a joint policy on net neutrality, in which the companies sought exemptions for certain services and wireless networks.

While Google cites under-funded campaigns as the filing’s rationale, the true beneficiary of such an exemption would be Google, which would continue to grow its AdWords product via the rich bounty of annual election cycles.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.