Thanks to an overwhelming public response, Google has apologized and appears to be setting things right. We received the following message at 10:14pm PST on December 17, 2010:
Hello Keith, It has come to our attention that your ad disapproved on 30th November 2010 was in error. I have made the change and your ad is now approved, Family Safe and running on Google. Please accept my apology for an inconvenience caused and let us know if you have any questions. Sincerely, The Google AdWords Team
For the record, here's what happened:
We've been advertising our book, "Queers in History" on Google for several years (previous versions and the new version) without any complaints. Then, on December 3, 2010 we received a "final warning" that our account will be suspended if we continue to submit ads with or about "adult content" or which are not "family safe." We've now had several email exchanges with Google, and they continue to insist that "Queers in HIstory" is "adult content." Although the phrase "adult content" is a euphemism, it is not the same as "adult topic." According to all the dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other sources, it really has only one meaning: "pornography." If you search "adult content" in Wikipedia it links directly to the article on "pornography." Search "adult content" on Google and almost every reference is to pornography. An "adult bookstore" does not merely contain books on "adult topics," it must also sell pornography.
So for some reason, and without specific explanation, Google has decided that a history textbook book which contains biographies of 900 prominent people, and no graphic sexual content, is actually pornography. Why? Google refuses to be specific, but apparently it's because the book identifies those people as queer. It's entirely possible that Google also would ban books called "Homosexuals in History" or "Gays in History."
Below are the exchanges of emails that we've had with Google on this topic.
December 3, 2010
It has come to our attention that despite multiple disapprovals, you have repeatedly submitted ads that violate our Adult and sexual content policies.
Please consider this notice as a final warning. If you submit these ads again or continue to run ads that violate our policies, we will be unable to run any of your AdWords ads in the future, and all of your Google AdWords accounts will be permanently suspended. For more information on our advertising policies, including suspension policies, visit
We highly value the quality of our program. In order to create an environment where our users can trust our advertisers and continue to receive quality advertising, we ask that you cease submitting ads that violate our guidelines.
For your account to remain active in the future, please make the following changes to your ad text/site content/keywords:
Only 'FamilySafe' images (contain no adult content) will be approved. Your images may not contain:
*Any material intended for persons over 18.
*Mature sexual themes, nudity, and/or sexual activity.
*Crude or indecent language.
*Offensive or inappropriate content.
Additionally, please do not open any new AdWords accounts. If you
do, your newly opened accounts will be suspended upon registration,
and your account fee will not be refunded.
To read more about our advertising guidelines, please visit
Thank you for your cooperation.
The Google AdWords Support Team
Our first response:
December 5, 2010
Dear Google Adwords Support:
This is in response to your email of December 3, 2010, subject “Final Warning: Advertising policy violations,” which seems to have been generated by a robot. I am an historian and a biographer, and I’d rather be working on my new book than writing this to you, especially as I can’t be certain any human at Google will ever read it. Due to the specific threats you made, based on your accusations which are of dubious validity, I am obliged to respond. I realize that merely by responding I risk additional damages from your retaliation. I will be as brief as possible, though the vague and ambiguous natures of your false accusations and the underlying policy make that more difficult.
I have advertised my book, "Queers in History" on Google for more than four years without any problem. Of course all my ads include the title of the book. For more than a year I've been running a display ad with only the text, “Queers in History, Now in Paperback: Learn More Here,” which was accepted by you without incident and which has not generated any complaints from you. A couple weeks ago I submitted a slightly larger version of the exact same ad (see below). This was summarily rejected by you and apparently triggered the “Final Warning,” which by the way is also the first warning.
I can only guess why this particular ad is being singled out for rejection as it doesn’t meet any of your stated criteria for disapproval. Even though it doesn’t make any sense in light of your prior and continuing acceptance of the identical version, my guess is that the presence of the word “queer” is somehow unpredictably, and incorrectly, sometimes triggering rejection. I would not want to think this kind of rejection is intentional on the part of employees of Google, therefore I assume it is merely a glitch in a robot.
If this is the basis for rejection, your concern is certainly misplaced. Do you think I’m using the word “queer” as an insult or to offend? It’s been 40 or 50 years since “queer” has been much used as a pejorative. Beginning in the 1950s the word was successfully appropriated by gay writers, scholars, and activists, who converted it to a badge of pride by the early 1990s. Today “queer studies” and “queer theory” are commonly used in the description of courses and degrees such as those offered at Yale, Harvard, and UCLA. A search of Amazon reveals 3,700 books with the word “queer” in the title or description – none of them seem to be pornographic, crude, or offensive: “Queer Theory: An Introduction” 1997; “Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer” 2004; “Fear of A Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Studies in Classical Philology)” 1993; etc. Are they all to be banished from Google’s display network?
These scholars and activists accomplished this appropriation by using the word in a positive way, thus reducing its power as an insult. Google would forbid the use of the word in a positive way, thus preserving its value as an insult. Google's actions suppress books which, like "Queers in History" present facts and ideas that have been censored and ignored for hundreds of years.
Today the insulting word is “gay” as in “that’s so gay”, and I support efforts to reduce people’s desire to use “gay” in that way. Even in that case, though, there are better solutions than the haphazard censorship you seem to be applying to “queer.” Word usage is fluid and one must always consider the intention.
The purpose of my book is to reveal significant biographical facts that have been intentionally left out of the standard biographies of notable people. Is Google now part of the active suppression of this information, censorship that had been maintained for hundreds of yers until recently? I assure you many people would be offended if they thought Google was preventing a volume of gay history from being advertised on its display network, merely because of the use of the word “queer” in its title. Many people are proud to identify themselves as queer, and your rejection might rightly be perceived as a direct insult.
Your email accuses me of "repeatedly" submitting inappropriate ads. Over the course of more than four years, I’ve submitted 16 ads to you; this is only the second one to be rejected. The first was over a year ago, for an ad which consisted of text from the cover of the book. Due to the vagueness of your stated justification for rejecting it, I had to guess what might be wrong with it. At that time I figured it was the slogan “Celebrities, Scandals, Secrets, and Sex” that caused the problem, specifically the word “Sex.” So I made sure none of my future ads would include the word sex –that seemed fair if applied to everyone equally. There's no way a blanket ban on "queer" could be applied "equally."
I’ve reviewed your policies at the link you provided, and none of them seem to apply in this case. Until you make your disapproval notices more clear, they will continue to be subject to misunderstanding, which makes your “two strikes and you get a final warning” policy patently and disproportionately unfair. Most people (and most dictionaries) would not consider two unjustified disapprovals in four years to indicate “repeatedly” submitting improper ads, producing “multiple” violations.
I understand you wish to reserve the right to be capricious and unaccountable, but I have to rest my hopes on someone at Google being sometimes and to some small extent, reasonable. I ask you to rescind your final warning, and correct any part of your system that is rejecting the word “queer” when used, as it invariably is nowadays, in a positive and thoughtful way.
I look forward to your timely response. Please contact me if I may be of assistance.
Keith Stern, author of "Queers in History"
December 9, 2010
Thank you for your email and the detail with which you wrote it in. I had a look at your account and the ads you submitted in the past and the ones that were recently disapproved. I've decided to escalate this particular issue to our ad approval team and find out the issue that deemed a disapproval. I hope to complete this process within the next three business days and get back to you. You will receive an email from me once I get some more information.
The Google AdWords Team
After that, one of our ads that had been approved for over a year was suddenly disapproved, and our other ads experienced greatly reduced effectiveness.
Then, we received another email:
December 14, 2010
Thank you for your patience. Valene is on leave today, so I will be addressing your concerns.
Keith, I understand that you received a Final Warning for repeatedly submitting image ads which violated our policies. I've consulted our specialists and confirmed that the image ads were disapproved in the past for 'Adult Content' (this includes language either in the ad text/landing page). Please note that per our policy on image ads, we only allow image ads which fall under our definition of 'Family Safe' ads. We do not permit image ads to promote content which is 'Non Family Safe'. However, we do allow text ads to promote adult content, and therefore, you will find that all your text ads have been approved 'Non Family Safe'. In the future, if you wish to advertise books, websites or any other content which may not be suitable for family audiences, please submit only text ads. If you submit any more image ads with similar violations, your account may risk suspension. Keith, please let me know if you have any further questions on this issue and I'll be happy to help.
The Google AdWords Team
December 15, 2010
Thanks, Manoshi, I do have a couple of further questions and I appreciate your offer to answer them.
I have searched the Adwords website for the "definition of 'Family Safe'" that you refer to, and also the definition for "Adult Content", without success. Can you link me to the definitions that have been applied in my case? I've checked several dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other sources and I find that, although those phrases are euphemisms, they have very definite meanings. The only definition of the phrase "adult content" is "pornography." For instance, in Wikipedia, if you type in "adult content" you are taken directly to the entry for "pornography" defined as "portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement and erotic satisfaction". That is in line with all other standard sources that define "adult content." There's simply no other meaning for the term.
Does Google consider a history textbook containing biographies of historically prominent people to qualify as pornography, simply because they are identified as queer, which is the scholarly term used for at least the past twenty years to describe minority sexual orientations and gender identities? There's no "adult content" in my ads, website, or book by standard definitions. Regarding "Family Safe" the only widespread definition I can find is derived from the 1970s era description of FCC policy regarding "Family Viewing Hour" on TV, which prohibited indecent or profane content. Of course my book is neither indecent or profane. Even organizations that claim to certify "family safe" content state that they approve "adult topics" including sexuality, as long as they are handled in an "educational and safe way." Clearly my ads, my website, and my book would be "family safe" by standard definitions.
What definitions is Google applying? If you use the term "adult content" to refer to pornography, and the term "family safe" to exclude profane or indecent content, that would be in conformance with widely understood meanings, and you wouldn't be giving me grief about my ads, website, and book.
My main concern is that I've again been threatened with suspension for supposedly violating policies that are apparently undefined or not defined in a way that would be widely understood. That in itself is patently unfair. I look forward to a timely response from you.
And their "response" which takes us back into robot-speak and effectively ends the conversation. The offer to field questions is withdrawn:
December 17, 2010
As Manoshi is on leave, I will be addressing your concerns. Firstly, I appreciate your taking the time to send us a detailed response. However, there are certain guidelines regarding the family status that we follow at Google: FamilySafe' is considered to be language, images and products in ad text and/or site content that is appropriate for all audiences. â€˜Non-FamilySafe' is considered to be language, images and products in ad text and/or site content intended and appropriate for adult users. â€˜Adult Content' is considered to be any site, regardless of language, images and products in ad text and/or site content, that includes graphic language and/or nudity. 'Nudity' - We consider nudity to be any picture where the model is not clothed. This includes sites where images have been blurred or are strategically covered with graphics such as stars, bars, words etc. Google takes into consideration the language in your ad text as well as the overall focus, purpose and content of you site. Graphic language in ad text as well as graphic language or images on the website will influence the status of the ad. Some products are considered to be intended for the sale and/or consumption of adults and will be given the appropriate Family Status rating. Our policies are very dynamic and they are formed on the basis of the advertiser feedback, legal and business requirements and other criteria. When ads are reviewed other factors like the landing page and content of the site are also considered. If there is a particular ad group in your campaign that has image ads which have been disapproved for adult content then you can edit and submit them and we shall be happy to re-review them for you. Also you can refer to our advertising policies: * AdWords Advertising Policies: http://adwords.google.com/support/aw/bin/static.py?hl=en&page=guidelines.cs * Landing Page and Site Quality Guidelines: http://adwords.google.com/support/aw/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=46675 If you have additional questions, you can visit our Help Center at http://adwords.google.com/support/aw/ Sincerely,
The Google AdWords Team
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