Mirabile Visu

Google’s unexpected commercial raises questions

March 15, 2010

Joseph Janes

Things I never thought I’d see:

1. The Saints winning the Super Bowl.

2. The Mariners making off-season moves that might actually help for this year.

3. A Google commercial.

I couldn’t quite believe it at first; there it was in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, as it really began to look like New Orleans had a chance to win. At first I thought maybe it was an ad for some other company that was just showing Google as a way to get to its own website; but nope, there it was. If you missed it, it’s available on YouTube, naturally, and bears a quick look. It’s a romance in miniature, told through rapid-fire searches, all in 60 seconds. Sweet, in a modern-love sort of way.

The first question that immediately comes to mind is, why? Followed by a side order of, why now? After many years of cultivating cool by not advertising, by relying on word of mouth and the in-the-know factor, why do this? Google’s not telling, in the company’s typically closed-mouth style.

And it’s not even Google’s first: An ad for Chrome aired in November, and the firm is happy to piggyback on all those Droid cell phone commercials. As a blogger at The Net Impact revealingly commented, “Google commercials? Isn’t that rather like, say, oxygen commercials or knife and fork commercials?” It’s facile to say that this betrays some sense of concern on Google’s part about Bing or Buzz or the Books settlement or something; in any case, it’s difficult to imagine any company in Google’s market position being all that afraid of anything or anyone.

There’s got to be a reason, even if after the fact the company came off even kind of sheepish about the whole business. Apparently, this won’t be the end of it, either: Google is searching (heh) for a director of marketing.

The commercial itself, motivations aside, was intriguing in its own right. In fact, it’s one of a series of short videos available on Google’s site that demonstrate how its search engine can be used. The one that aired, relating the progress of an intercontinental long-distance romance in the space of a minute, illustrates at least nine features: letting Google finish your search as you type, correcting spelling, translation, automatic synonyms, local search, word definitions, Wikipedia in results, flight purchasing (take that, Bing), and maps.

Not a bad little tutorial on search technique—even devious in the way it crammed all of those points in. (All of our information literacy sessions should be so compelling.) In typical Google fashion, it’s very spare, making the searching look effortless, simple, and always effective.

It echoed, for me, the iPhone commercials that show, for example, a guy ordering flowers while still on a call with his girlfriend and she’s none the wiser. Technology is here to make your life easier, and apparently to stabilize your relationships. It also contrasts vividly with that other well-known Super Bowl technology commercial, the “1984” Macintosh ad that Apple paid to air once and hasn’t been allowed to be forgotten since.

The message appears to be seamlessness—these tools are just there, ready and waiting when the need or mood strikes, always available, easy to use, and then on with your life.

I also never thought I’d see giant totems ascend from a stage or a young man soar and bank over the prairie; but I did, in person, at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Quite an experience, made even more special by the warm and generous hospitality of City Librarian Paul Whitney and his partner Joan. Canadians + librarians = nicest people on the planet . . .  but that’s another story.


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