Google’s Tobacco Advertising Policy: Smoke and Mirrors?

In the world of SEM, it seems inevitable that at one point or another, you’ll find yourself up against one of Google’s countless AdWords advertising policies. Some policies are easy to work around. For example, one of our clients sells a product called WTF. Yes, that’s right: WTF. This acronym just happens to be flagged under Google’s ‘Inappropriate Language’ editorial policy, which polices the many ‘variations of inappropriate language’. Fortunately for our client, WTF stands for ‘Wake the Freak’, so all we needed to do was shoot a quick email to our reps at Google explaining the situation and voila! – ad approved. Other situations, however, are not so simple. And sometimes it seems that even when you find a way to play by Google’s rules, trouble still finds you. Check out this blog I wrote a few months back about the mess AdWords pharmaceutical advertisers found themselves in with the FDA.

The good news is that, in many cases, advertising policies aren’t as rigid as they seem. There is usually a loophole, and with a little digging you’ll often find a way to play by the rules even if it seems like you have to bend them a little to do so.


We recently started investigating the ins and outs of another AdWords Policy – Google’s tobacco and cigarette’s policy, which clearly stipulates, ‘Don’t promote tobacco and cigarettes’. Why then, I wonder, when I search for ‘buy cigars’ do I see this:

Buy Cigars

Because there is a loophole! Google permits the advertising of cigar accessories, although they will be approved as non-family safe ads. Read more about non-family safe ads here. Basically, there are certain sites that do not allow non-family safe content. Chances are that if you’re selling cigars, you don’t want to be on these sites anyway, so no big deal there.

So, as long as we don’t use a CTA like ‘Buy Cigars Here’ in our ad copy, we’ve found a way to advertise tobacco in spite of the seemingly inflexible aforementioned tobacco policy. But Google’s tobacco advertising policy doesn’t end with the ad copy – it ends at the destination URL. In addition to not allowing the direct mention of cigar sales in ad copy, the landing page must not be focused on just selling cigars. Even though driving product-specific keywords to a product specific page is a best practice, the easiest solution would seem to be to drive all traffic to either a home page or an accessories page and let the visitor use the site search field to find what they’re looking for.

For example, let’s say that I’d like to buy an Arturo Fuente cigar for an upcoming celebration. Here is what I see when I search for ‘Arturo Fuente cigars’ on Google:

Arturo Fuente

Let’s go through these a few of these ads to see where traffic is being driven (keeping in mind that I know the precise brand of cigar I want to purchase): directs to the site’s home page, where the search field is displayed prominently. So I enter ‘Arturo Fuente’ and find that this store carries the brand I’m looking for:

Thompson Cigar directs traffic to a Humidors & Cigar accessories page, also with an easy to spot search field where I can continue in my quest for an Arturo Fuente:

Famous Smoke Shop

Again, I’ve found a robust collection of Arturo Fuentes. However, as a good SEM manager, I’m simply not satisfied with sending product specific keywords to a general landing page since I know that making visitors do extra work to find what they’re looking for results in lower ROI for my clients. To illustrate, consider a similar scenario, but one that is uncomplicated by advertising policies. Let’s say that I’m searching for a Francesco Clemente print. I go to Google and search for ‘Francesco Clemente prints’ and I see an ad from that seems to offer what I’m looking for, and directs me to a page where I can view and purchase Clemente prints with no extra effort required:

Art River #1

If the ad were to instead direct me to ArtRiver’s home page, I may have taken one look and decided that Art River didn’t have what I was searching for based on the imagery on the home page. Or maybe I would have decided that it would be easier to click the back button and select a different ad than searching through ArtRiver’s site.

Art River #2

Either way, it’s just not worth the chance of losing a potential customer by not delivering to them exactly what they’re looking for within one click of an ad.

This is where the tobacco policy loophole arises: Google does not allow ads to direct to a page just focused on purchasing cigars. A page selling cigars does not necessarily have to be focused on just selling cigars, though. Take the example of, which utilizes a ‘we also recommend’ section on product pages. Check out the Arturo Fuente Hemingway Classic page, which is recommending various other cigars below the Hemingway Classic:


Because this page is dedicated only to selling cigars, Tinderbox would not be able to send ads to this page. However, a potential workaround may be to display cigar accessories in the ‘we also recommend’ section rather than just cigars. This way, they are more likely to be in compliance with Google’s tobacco advertising policy because the page would not be dedicated to just selling cigars. Semantics, in this case, may make all the difference.

The moral of the story: Google’s advertising policies, while seemingly inflexible at first glance, often have plenty of loopholes. Sometimes all it takes is a little creativity!