Google AdSense, wine blogs, and Joe Camel

Google AdSense, wine blogs, and Joe Camel

“Hey, kids. Why don’t you try some wine with your smokes?”

Most wine blogs can’t participate in Google’s AdSense network, perhaps the leading on-line ad service. That’s because, as I found out when I applied, we violate its terms of service: “We did not approve your application for the reasons listed below. Issues: Drugs, drug paraphernalia, alcohol, beer or tobacco. … Please remove all drug-related content from your site, then resubmit your application.”

That we’re doing nothing illegal and that we don’t have any drug-related content to remove seems like just another of those wonderful, Google-esque ways the search giant does business: Buying companies to close them, discontinuing popular services, or agreeing with the Chinese government that Internet censorship isn’t such a bad thing.

But Google’s decision to ban wine blogs from AdSense goes deeper than that, speaking to the contradictions inherent in wine and alcohol 80 years after Prohibition, thanks to the NeoDrys, fear of underage drinking, and the three-tier system. Google doesn’t object to wine, as near as I can tell. It just doesn’t want to be responsible for someone buying it who might break the law, because that could lead to nasty publicity, lawsuits, and the besmirching of its good name. More, after the jump:

Can you see the headlines? “12-year-old buys cheap wine from curmudgeonly Internet site that Google ad sent her to”? It’s a local TV station sweeps story just waiting to happen.

This, says Paul Mabray, one of the leading Internet marketing types in the country, is almost certainly the legacy of Joe Camel, the cigarette industry’s last, glorious attempt to hook kids on smokes. Or, as the New York Times so elegantly phrased it: “Joe Camel was emblematic of … the insidious, underhanded marketing gimmicks by which cigarettes are sold in America. Particularly, the activists hit home with contentions that slick, colorful presentations of a grinning cartoon animal were intended to appeal specifically to children to take up smoking.”

The backlash against Joe Camel, who ran from 1988-1997, still figures in marketing decisions for products that are legal, but that aren’t supposed to be sold to kids, says Mabray — and liquor is near the top of that list.

“Yes, it seems like an absurdity,” says Mabray, the chief strategy officer for wine consultancy Vintank. “But since Joe Camel, marketers have swung over to the conservative side. If there isn’t any proof that their advertising is being delivered to the right person, it’s easier not to do the advertising.”

And that’s the sticking point with the Internet, in that it’s almost impossible to determine how old anyone is — something the NeoDrys use as a rallying point to argue for restrictions in direct shipping. A minor using a parent’s computer who follows an AdSense link to a wine site and buys wine on the site may have involved Google in a crime. So it’s safer to blacklist all wine sites, even those that don’t sell wine, rather than take any chances. Compounding the problem, Mabray says, is three-tier and the tangle of U.S. liquor laws, which could criminalize even adult behavior. Consider: Someone in Pennsylvania, where direct shipping is restricted, follows an AdSense ad to a wine site and orders wine. Has Google abetted them in a crime?

Also note the difference between AdSense and the Google Marketplace, where third-party retailers sell wine, beer, and spirits. In the latter, the retailers must determine whether the transaction is legal, and Google probably isn’t responsible if a crime is committed.

My liquor attorney, though noting that Google’s behavior with AdSense is certainly acceptable, did roll his eyes when he read the materials I sent him (and which you can find here). He mostly agreed with Mabray, but found Google’s one-size-fits-all interpretation a bit heavy-handed and its language worthy of a very high-priced lawyer.

And the search giant’s thinking? We’ll never know. I exchanged emails with Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville, who declined to be interviewed for this post and referred me to the terms of service. Which is about as lawerly as you can get.

The point here is not that a wine blog is going to get rich using AdSense, and that Google is preventing me from retiring to Burgundy. As I’ve written before, most of us don’t generate enough traffic on our sites to earn more than pocket change from advertising, which requires tens of thousands of visitors to pay off.

Rather, it’s about the double standard that applies to wine and alcohol eight decades after Prohibition, and that also seems to be the case with Kickstarter, where I raised the money for the cheap wine book. I wrote an article for Palate Press, the on-line wine magazine, about wine projects and Kickstarter, but no one at the crowd-sourcing company would talk to me. I thought that was odd; what difference did it make to Kickstarter if the project involved wine? It’s allowed, isn’t it? But almost a year later, the silence makes sense. It’s wine. It’s the Internet. Let’s not take any chances.

In the end, if a company like Kickstarter, or Google, with its deep pockets, a propensity for lawsuits, and platoons of lawyers, doesn’t want to participate in perfectly legal behavior, is it any wonder that so many others shy away?

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