It’s not very often that Google shows care for anything besides its bottom line these days, but on Thursday, the company made a small step in the right direction by announcing a new setting that lets people limit the alcohol- and gambling-related ads they come across.
Per the announcement, the feature will first roll out for YouTube ads in the U.S., before globally expanding to ads across YouTube and Google search in “early 2021.” Countries that already have legal limitations on ads in these sorts of categories — like say, Norway or Sweden — won’t see any change in their policies as a result, Google added.
Up until this point, people who saw one of these ads had the option to “mute” them, which would keep that specific ad from cropping up across Google’s properties, or any of the countless web publishers that Google partners with. On top of that, it also kept users from seeing any ads that Google deemed “similar” to the ad in question, either because they looked the same, or were from the same advertiser.
This new feature, Google explained, is an “extra step” that puts more choice in the user’s hands. In reality, though, it’s closer to something of a half-step. Google doesn’t quite qualify what it means by “limiting” these ads in the blog post, but it’s safe to assume that some will still slip through. That means Google could still pocket the money made from an addict being served ads for a substance or behaviour they’re trying to avoid, but the numbers will be “significantly reduced,” according to the company.
“While our intent is to be able to block all ads from a given category, there are certain ads that can be difficult to categorise,” a Google spokesperson said in an email, giving the example of an ad for an airline featuring a flight attendant serving champagne.
“We want to be fully transparent so we’re using ‘see fewer ads’ rather than ‘see no ads’ or ‘block ads’ to appropriately set expectations that while significantly reduced, people may still see ads related to a selected category,” the spokesperson added. “But of course, we’ll continue to work to get as close as possible to blocking all ads within a selected category.”
That said, it’s pretty significant that Google’s introducing this setting now. While we’ve seen the global pandemic take a mental toll on just about everyone, many people in recovery from any sort of addiction have found the months-long stretch of isolation a particularly lonely struggle. Targeted ads don’t help. As one Reddit user who said they’re in recovery put it, being pelted with ads for the substance you’re trying to abstain from makes the site — be it Reddit, YouTube, or anywhere else — feel like much less of a “safe haven.”
The brands responsible for serving these sorts of targeted ads don’t really have any incentive to stop. Online gambling in the U.S., in particular, has seen a surge of popularity during the course of the pandemic, drawing in billions of dollars as a result.
Google, for its part, claims that many advertisers it works with “are also invested in respecting people’s choices and cultural differences when it comes to the ads they see,” and credited members of the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), along with “the leading beer, wine, and spirits producers” for lending their support to the new ad opt-out settings.
There are, of course, ads in other categories that people can find pretty disturbing, too. There are women who get targeted with ads for baby products following a miscarriage, or people who get targeted with ads for gravestones after their parent dies. A two-category ad setting is a good start, but if Google wants to help these people also feel at home on the internet, then maybe we need a few more.
When asked whether it would consider expanding ad limitations into other categories, the spokesperson noted that Google’s “always looking for new ways to improve the user experience,” but doesn’t “have anything to share right now.”