November 25, 2022

How to spot paid Google ads by political candidates

Using Google Ads, applicants can pay to write favorable headlines that appear on Google. Here’s how to spot an ad.

WASHINGTON – Political campaigns across the country are spending millions of dollars on Google Ads in an effort to create a positive narrative. In Virginia, the two gubernatorial candidates used the tactic, pumping millions of dollars into the resource.

To better understand how it all works, our audit team spoke with a digital marketing company, who walked us step by step through the process.


Can political candidates use Google Ads to edit headlines?



With less than two weeks of election day in Virginia, the airwaves are inundated with election ads. Both candidates spent large sums of money getting their message across on television and radio.

Another type of advertising, which attracts less attention, is the use of Google Ads. This effort drew millions of dollars in spending from the two Virginia favorites.

According to the Google Transparency Report, McAuliffe’s campaign, “Terry For Virginia” spent more than $ 3.7 million on Google ads, including ads on YouTube, which is owned by Google.

The same report shows that the Youngkin campaign, “Youngkin For Governor Inc” spent more than $ 950,000 on Google ads, including those on Youtube.

Both campaigns use creative techniques to create a positive narrative, crafting headlines that are supportive of them and critical of their opponent.

For example, consider the following announcement from McAuliffe, which has been online for 18 days, starting October 5, according to Google’s transparency report.

The ad was linked to an article by Axios, which discussed the role Taylor Swift played in the campaign, but showed the headline: “Glenn Youngkin | Betrayed Taylor Swift | And Helped Buy His Masters.

The Axios article itself was published with a different Google title: “Virginia Governor’s Race Features Taylor Swift.”

A spokesperson for the McAuliffe campaign made the following statement regarding its Google advertising strategy:

“Glenn Youngkin wants to prioritize Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories over Virginians, and our campaign is making sure it reaches voters where they are. There is a lot at stake in this election … and there is only one candidate vying to protect women’s reproductive rights, keep our economy strong and create world-class education.

The Youngkin campaign also used Google Ads. Since October 25, a Google search for “McAuliffe” has brought up the following ad as the first result:

The ad links to a website called, which offers additional criticism of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

A spokesperson for the Youngkin campaign declined to comment on its Google advertising strategy.

The use of these Google ads is not specific to the Virginia gubernatorial race. As of May 31, 2018, nearly $ 800 million has been spent on political ads on Google, according to the Google Transparency Report.

The report showed that the biggest spenders were:

  • “$ 83,733,500
  • “Donald J. Trump for President, INC” – $ 83,483,000
  • “Mike Bloomberg 2020 INC” – $ 62,250,100
  • “Trump Make American Great Again Committee” – $ 47,351,500
  • “DSCC” – $ 16,349,300


Political campaigns have bet big on these Google ads. To find out how they’re made, the Verify team visited PBJ Marketing and spoke with Marketing Director and Co-Founder David Bosley.

Bosley said the first step is to select the keyword, which is the term people will search for on Google.

“If this is a keyword that no one is bidding on, it could cost 50 cents or $ 1,” he said.

It’s another story for a more coveted search term like a candidate name. Campaigns can spend thousands of dollars on these search terms, and they bank on each other for clicks.

“If it was ‘Terry McAuliffe’ or ‘Glenn Youngkin’, yes, there is a lot of money attached to those search terms,” ​​Bosley said.

As a demo, Bosley created a sample Google ad, linking to journalist Evan Koslof’s bio page, which would appear when the keyword “Evan Koslof” is searched. Watch the process below.

Bosley was able to choose the Google title word for word. He said it could allow contestants to define the narrative, whether it’s writing “Terrible Reporter”, “Great Reporter” or something totally irrelevant like “Best Hamburgers in DC.”

The process was quick and easy, although Bosley said there was a delay between the creation of the ad and the final post. He said the ads must first be approved by Google.

The tactic used by the McAuliffe campaign, linked to a well-known media outlet with a modified Google title, has been criticized. Ericka Menchen-Revino, professor of communications at American University, said it was perfectly legal, but could be considered misleading.

“Looks like it’s meant to give credibility,” she said. “Match the credibility of the news agency’s name with the message the campaign wants to send. And to me, that’s misleading.”


There are two very easy ways to spot a political ad on Google.

  • Look for the bold “Ad” disclaimer in the upper left corner of the Google post.
  • All political ads must state who paid for the ad, directly below the link