Google is advertising in print magazines and you can’t tell

Behind the scenes.
Behind the scenes.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Perhaps you would buy a smartphone for its camera if you knew it was used to photograph the rapper Cardi B on the cover of W magazine. Or actress Angela Bassett on the cover of Allure. Or Ryan Gosling on the cover of GQ.

If so, you might prefer to know that the company pushing this phone—Google in this case—paid for this partnership, and that the magazine, owned by publisher Conde Nast, made a business decision rather than expressing an aesthetic or technological preference. You may want to know photographers didn’t necessarily decide that this was the ideal device.

Regardless of your personal preferences, federal advertising guidelines in the US certainly require such disclosures. In advertising, “the watchword is transparency,” according to the Federal Trade Commission. Consumers need to know when they are looking at paid promotional materials.

Yet Google’s new approach to promoting its Pixel phone’s photographic prowess presents a very murky picture that may not meet these standards. The tech company has partnered with Conde Nast publishing and celebrities to create advertisements that don’t seem like ads at all. The publisher is using the Pixel phone in magazines like Vogue, GQ, Allure, and Glamour, by photographing stars like Bassett and Ryan Gosling with the phone’s camera.

You might not even know about it. But you might learn in other ways, such as through a mention on social media.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with a partnership between Google and Condé Nast, which the publisher’s chief creative officer, Raul Martinez, described in a press release last month: “Photographing our covers with the Pixel 3 was a compelling challenge, impressing even our most discerning photographers. This strategic partnership with Google is an example of how we’re innovating to bring our audiences content that is created and distributed in new ways that reflect the cutting edge of the industry.”

The Fashion Law notes that “it is not immediately obvious that these covers are a promotion for anything.” Nevertheless, by not explicitly noting the relationship between the publisher and the device maker, the covers may be crossing the line, it adds.

What is a material connection?

“If there is a material connection between your company and an endorser, disclose it,” the FTC explains on its website.  A material connection, according to the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, is a relationship between the endorser and the seller that “might materially affect the weight or credibility a consumer gives the endorsement.”

The government body states that its guides “reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading.” As such, if the endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the product, disclosure is a must because “knowing about the connection is important information for anyone evaluating the endorsement.”

In other words, consumers need to know when a promotion is premised purely on admiration for a product and when payment or some kind of qui pro quo between the endorser and seller is at play.

Google wouldn’t reveal details about disclosures in its contract with Conde Nast to the Fashion Law. In a joint statement about the partnership, Adrienne Hayes of Pixel marketing at Google doesn’t discuss advertising transparency: “Our goal is to help people get brilliant photos in any light, from stunning portraits to detailed landscapes, and it’s been incredible to see the industry’s top photographers bring these iconic covers to life shooting with Pixel 3.”

Conde Nast, on the other hand, contends that inside its magazines, the required disclosure language clarifies that there is a paid partnership between the publisher and Google. “However, a disclosure inside of the magazine, while certainly better than no disclosure at all, may fail to meet the [FTC’s] rigorous standards for proper disclosure,” the Fashion Law notes.

Indeed, the FTC provides that “disclosures of material connection must be clear and conspicuous.” Explaining a material connection in a footnote, behind an obscure hyperlink, or on a general page will not suffice. “As with any disclosure of material information, businesses should put the disclosure in a location where consumers will see it and read it,” the FTC explains.

Quartz has reached out to Google and Conde Nast and will update this post with comments if they reply.

What a great dress!

In a 2016 case, the department store chain Lord & Taylor settled a claim with the FTC after it promoted its new in-store brand with advertising the commission deemed deceptive. The department store had 50 Instagram influencers promote a particular dress without noting that these were paid endorsements that were part of an advertising campaign.

The store also failed to conspicuously disclose that it had a deal with Nylon magazine, giving the impression that the publication’s rave reviews of the new in-house brand and the images of a model wearing the dress were simply editorial choices. In Lord & Taylor’s settlement with the FTC, the commission made it clear that sellers can’t expressly or implicitly imply that an advertisement is anything other than what it is, and that endorsement disclosures must be “in close proximity” to these promotions.

As a consumer, you may wonder why businesses would even bother promoting products surreptitiously. What’s the point of an advertisement that doesn’t explicitly promote anything or even reveal itself as an advertisement? The point is influence, giving the impression that a product is being endorsed by a reputable source without arousing suspicion of motivations for promotion that an obvious ad  naturally would in consumers. But that’s also precisely what the FTC is attempting to thwart with its endorsement guidelines.

Instagram influencers have come under fire for these surreptitious advertising practices and are now required to clearly state when they are pushing a product because it’s just awesome as opposed to when they’ve been encouraged to endorse it by a seller, either because they got the product as a gift or because they have been paid to promote it. In July, for example, Dior raised suspicions about its intentions when it sent its classic saddlebag to influencers and suddenly social media platforms were flooded with images of beautiful people carrying the new bag. Very few of these posts actually noted, as required by law, that the poster received the bag as a gift from Dior in exchange for an endorsement.

Pay for play in print

Paid partnerships aren’t a new development, of course. But paid covers were once taboo for magazines. “This would’ve been unthinkable a number of years ago, but it’s become such a lucrative option and clearly a very potent one from the perspective of the advertisers to be so visible and so memorable,” Douglas McCabe, chief executive of Enders Analysis, a media research group, told Business of Fashion last year. “There is a long-term risk to these things, the independence of the media brand is more likely to be tarnished even if subliminally consumers associate media brands with advertising.”

If McCabe is right, it’s Conde Nast that stands to lose from potential damage to its brand as a result of its partnership with Google. Still, it is notable that a tech company whose name is synonymous with the internet took to physical print publication to promote its phone, and that Google, which brings the world’s information to our screens with just a few keystrokes, isn’t eager to discuss transparent advertising.

Whether the FTC will have anything to say about the tech company’s latest approach to promoting its phones remains to be seen. But as a consumer you should keep your eyes peeled.