Google v NZ Customs: Bing is the winner

Google, as we all know, has a large number of restrictions and requirements as to which advertisers and what ads it will allow to run in Google AdWords.

Companies that have their ads rejected, however, have the option to make changes to their website pages and ad text and, after editorial review, their ads may be permitted.

Too often, however, the company’s rigid interpretations of its policies lead to farcical situations, with rulings that are inconsistent and sometimes bereft of all common sense.


Disapproved by Google – for promoting cigarette smoking…

A case in point: in November last year, New Zealand’s duty free allowances changed, restricting the amount of tobacco products travellers could purchase and bring into the country. NZ Customs wished to let travellers know, so that they wouldn’t be caught exceeding the new limit of 50 cigarettes or 50 grams of cigars or tobacco products.

The new law was introduced in order to reduce the harm caused by smoking, aligning this country’s duty free tobacco allowance with that of Australia. The previous limit was 200 cigarettes, at a price that made a carton of cigarettes a popular gift when visiting or staying with a smoker.

Our job was to help let travellers know of the upcoming changes and, after November 1, that the new restrictions were in effect. We started a search and display ad campaign in September with ads shown in Google and Search Partner search results, as well as on the Google Display Network.

Google introduced revisions to its requirements for weapons, tobacco and fireworks advertising (Google’s Dangerous Products & Services Policy) in mid-September.

Ads that ran without issue at first were subsequently disapproved. We worked with Google’s support team, ultimately revising ad copy text to address smokers while omitting any references to cigarettes and tobacco. These text ads were approved, and continue to run.

So far, so good, but what about the banner ads? The ads we were provided reference tobacco and mention the changes in the law. Even after revisions, all have been disapproved.

Google’s reasoning? The ads promote smoking: smokers who had intended to travel without cigarettes will, on seeing the NZ Customs ads, instead buy two packets.


Bing’s ad policies concerning tobacco are not that different from Google’s. For Bing, it’s fine if you are promoting ways to stop smoking cigarettes but, as with AdWords, you can’t advertise “cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and other tobacco products”.

And, as was the case with Google, all the NZ Customs banner ads were automatically disapproved by Bing. The difference then? Common sense was applied: the ads have since been approved after Bing’s manual review. They are now running on the Bing Content Network (a network of Microsoft- and Yahoo-owned and operated sites, plus syndicated partner sites).

Why should you care?

We understand the reasons for Google’s Dangerous Products & Services Policy, and that there is risk to Google as a publisher should damage be caused by products promoted via Google AdWords. But no reasonable individual would conclude that NZ Customs is promoting smoking by advising travellers that if they purchase 200 cigarettes, as they have been accustomed, they will have to pay duty.

If you’ve run into issues with AdWords policies, there’s often things you can do to become compliant that will enable you to advertise. And Google is generally helpful in suggesting solutions and, where warranted, escalating issues to their Policy team for resolution.

Policies can also be interpreted too literally, however, without reasoned deliberation to identify where exceptions are warranted.

Should you reach the point of exasperation, take a deep breath – there are other advertising networks worth consideration.

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About the Author Jeremy Templer & Mark Sceats

Jeremy and Mark are two of the partners behind SureFire Search. Despite their deceptively youthful appearances, both have worked in search marketing for many years. To put that in context, Google didn't even exist when Jeremy started.