Sex sells but Google isn’t buying It

Yosi Cemel, November 23, 2021

Sex sells but Google isn’t buying It

Image credit: Charles Deluvio @charlesdeluvio

Key takeaways

Don’t roll the dice when it comes to Google’s adult content policy – the consequences will be severe. 

  • Online sex violation: Google’s sexually explicit content policy will be considered an egregious violation.
  • Egregious violations result in account suspension without warning. 
  • Advertisers need to be cautious about targeting and local laws.
  • Sexual content can only run under specific conditions, including certain ad platforms, networks, and formats.

If you want to advertise in the Google-verse  the digital space that reaches just about every online corner of the word – you’ll need to play by the company’s rules. While in and of itself that doesn’t seem like a challenge, Google is constantly updating its policies. It’s your responsibility to stay on top of changes and be ready to adapt when new policy updates roll out.

Advertisers, take note: Google has made another policy change related to sexually explicit content. If violated, the consequences are severe.

In this article, we’ll dive into the details of the new policy, when it will go into effect, and what will happen if you don’t abide by the changes. We’ll also cover how you can ensure your campaigns adhere to the new policies so you’ll be ready when the update goes live.

Adult content in Google Ads: What will change?

Sexually explicit content has always been a slippery slope. This is mainly due to the idea that what one advertiser deems as not being sexually explicit may not line up with Google’s interpretation. Advertisers know that sex sells, so some might try to push the limits to drive clicks and engagement. Others may make a more innocent mistake. For example, a brand that sells lingerie could run into a problem if the campaign features an image that is deemed explicit. 

Starting on December 1st, 2021, and ramping up to full enforcement over the following four weeks, Google is drawing a hard and fast line in the sand. If advertisers violate its sexually explicit content policy, the violation will be considered an egregious one. That’s not fancy or flowery wording.

According to Google, “An egregious violation of the Google Ads policies is a violation so serious that it is unlawful or poses significant harm to our users or our digital advertising ecosystem. Egregious violations often reflect that the advertiser’s overall business does not adhere to Google Ads policies or that one violation is so severe that we cannot risk future exposure to our users.”

An egregious policy violation will result in account suspension without any warning. In other words, those who violate this policy will have their accounts shut down and won’t be able to advertise on Google again.

Although Google does offer an option to appeal the decision, it seems unlikely that the company will be flexible given that they are announcing the policy changes in advance.

How can advertisers prepare ad campaigns to comply with the new policy?

As we have all learned with Google and how it rolls out new policies, it is hard to predict the impact and what will be considered a violation. On the other hand, we can look at what Google has written so far, and know that sometimes Google is just saying what it means. 

Before we dive into the details of Google’s policies, here is the bottom line: review Google’s sexual content policy, and when in doubt, don’t launch an ad campaign that you’re unsure about. The consequences are far too significant.

That said, here’s an overview of the policy – we highly recommend you familiarize yourself with the details below: 

The overall policy states, “Ads should respect user preferences and comply with legal regulations. We restrict certain kinds of sexual content in ads and destinations, which will only show in limited scenarios based on user search queries, user age, and local laws where the ad is being served. Ads must not target minors.”

In addition to complying with regulations and laws, this new policy aligns with those from most other respectable supply and demand platforms and social media platforms. With a substantial focus on brand safety, this policy update helps the industry move closer towards creating more brand-safe environments and standards which benefit publishers and advertisers alike. 

What does Google consider sexually explicit content?

Google breaks sexually explicit content into two categories: strongly restricted and moderately restricted.

Strongly restricted category

Ads that fall into this category include nudity which is qualified as ‘people or representations of people that display exposed intimate body parts, including representations that are blurred or censored.” Sexual encounter dating or ads that promote dates motivated by sexual encounters also fall into this category.

Moderately restricted category

This category is far more expansive and includes ads with partial nudity, sexualized theme dating, sexual merchandise, sexual entertainment, mature cosmetic procedures, and sexually suggestive elements and themes. When you dig into Google’s examples, the waters get a bit murky, and you need to assess their content with extreme care.

To clarify this category, let’s look at an example of an image that could land you in hot water with Google.

Dita Von Tease is perhaps one of the most well-known contemporary burlesque dancers. Many people would classify this image as tasteful and artistic, never considering it offensive or sexually explicit, given that there’s no nudity or sex depicted. However, with respect to Google’s sexually explicit content policy, running this movie poster as an ad image without care or consideration for the target audience (not only who but also where) could result in an egregious violation because there is partial nudity.

Taking this example above, here’s how to stay on Google’s good side.


First off, consider your targeting carefully. Ads that fall into the moderately restricted category will only be shown based on the user’s age, local laws, and SafeSearch settings. Those in the strongly restricted category have an additional condition based on the user’s sexual content Search queries.


Google offers a country restrictions list which shows where ads that fall into either category will not be served, regardless of the user’s age or other factors. Familiarize yourself with them and all local laws if you are launching global campaigns or campaigns targeting the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, or South America.

Ad platforms, networks, and formats

Provided that an ad campaign meets the geographical restrictions, it now needs to pass the next hurdle.

Sexual content ads can run on Google Ads but not AdMob, Google Ad Manager or YouTube.

Sexual content ads can run on Google Search Network but not Display Network or Google Ad Manager Network.

Ad formats are the trickiest of the campaign settings to consider. Google states, “Sexual content ads cannot run, though acceptable ad formats can vary depending on factors such as the platform you’re using, the status of your ad, and whether a publisher or partner has opted to show such ads.” Those formats include app ads and app extensions, consumer ratings annotations, dynamic display ads, Gmail ads, image ads, lightbox ads, reservation display ads, responsive ads, and TrueView video ads.


Sex is a hard sell. Whenever you find yourself wondering if your content will violate Google’s policy, ask yourself if you would be comfortable having it handed out in a third-grade classroom or be on your screen as your boss walks by. If you have any hesitation, it’s best to err on the side of caution and switch directions unless you’re sure your campaign complies with the specific conditions set out by Google. 

When we agree to participate in the Google marketplace, a “family safe” environment, we must play by their rules.  Google strengthening its position on how it values and welcomes “adult content” on its platforms is a good sign for standards in our ecosystem.  Content should be shared, and advertisers and publishers should feel safe. The challenge lies in remembering that the common sense that Google is asking advertisers to use is GoogleSense. What may have been acceptable yesterday could be ok again in the future (maybe under a different demand value), but it is not welcome now. The penalty is strict and swift and, frankly, just not worth the risk of losing your account. 

This article was written by Yosi Cemel,

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