As of Tuesday, October 28th, the top search result for ‘Ebola’ is sponsored by Lysol.
Googling the infectious disease will return some useful information about the epidemic—the Center for Disease Control website is clearly labeled with a red heading, the news feed is responsibly curated, and links below direct users to the World Health Organization, Wikipedia, and CNN.
But because Google is in the ad business, and because corporations can’t resist a good marketing opportunity, Lysol comes first: ‘What Is Ebola - Lysol.com.Learn the Facts About Ebola Virus From Lysol®. Find More Info Now.’
Lysol, of course, is a name-brand disinfectant sold in supermarkets, hardware, and drug stores around the nation.
The link takes you to a hastily designed ‘Ebola Updates’ portal, which tells users to go to the CDC website for actual updates before informing them that “Lysol products like Lysol Disinfectant Spray and the other products listed here are approved as hospital-grade disinfectants and though not specifically tested [sic] to kill the Ebola virus, based on their ability to kill similar as well as harder to kill viruses, these products are likely to be effective against the Ebola virus.”
Meanwhile, on Lysol.com’s front page, under the brand’s logo, a huge image of the infamous virus buffets the headline ‘Safeguarding Against the Spread of Ebola.’ The message is clear—Lysol will help fight Ebola.
“It’s kind of ridiculous, and certainly irresponsible,” Dr. Abdulrahman M. El-Sayed, an epidemiologist at Columbia and director of the university’s Systems Science Program, told me in an email. “I think this is a corporation riding on false fears of an epidemic to sell its product, thus reinforcing those fears,” he wrote.
A communications representative at Reckitt Benckiser, the company that owns and distributes Lysol, said he wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the ad.
“Lysol is likely to be effective against Ebola,” he said. “It hasn't actually been tested yet, but it's likely to be.” When I asked him about the decision to advertise Lysol as a safeguard against Ebola to the public, he pointed to the same text on the website. When I pointed out that the CDC only recommended such a product in hospital settings, and asked him who the ad was marketed to, he said he couldn’t speculate.
Technically, El-Sayed confirmed that Lysol would kill any Ebola lingering on nonporous surfaces, which is why the CDC recommends using similar disinfectants in hospitals. But since transmission typically occurs person-to-person, through blood, vomit, feces, or saliva, it is unlikely to help the average non-healthcare worker guard against the disease—especially considering the vast majority of consumers will never come anywhere near an infected person.
“To be honest, there are very few legitimate uses of lysol to address Ebola in the US,” El-Sayed said. “Most hospitals/clinics will be buying products wholesale, and certainly not Googling Ebola to find their chosen brand of cleaner.”
By purchasing the top search result and tailoring its website to highlight the disease, Lysol is suggesting that its products will protect consumers from Ebola—and that they need protecting in the first place. Lysol isn’t new to this game, either—nearly one hundred years ago, in 1918, Lysol’s then-owners Lehn & Fink misleadingly advertised the disinfectant as a cure for the Spanish Flu in the New York Times.
Today, it’s pretty clear the Lysol Google ad is again aimed at the anxious consumer—adding Lysol to the growing list of companies that are exploiting Ebola fears for financial gain. Lysol is the only major corporation that Motherboard could find buying Google Search results, however—all the other Ebola-related sponsored results were for nonprofits and foundations working to combat its spread.
And it’s not hard to see why it’s enticing. Google Trends shows that searches for the disease are clearly skyrocketing:
But it’s also not hard to fathom why Lysol is the only major company to make such a high stakes buy—few other companies want to be so publicly seen exploiting a serious and tragic epidemic for profit.