The Google Superbowl Ad: Why Now?

Google launched their first ever major TV ad last night at the Superbowl and thinking about it I had a moment where I thought – “Oh dear, I’m watching the beginning of the end.”

I’ve worked at tech companies that spent a fortune on TV ads and I have always been a skeptic.  Unless you are doing pretty sophisticated brand tracking to measure the changes in the perception of your brand, the effects of tactics like that are almost impossible to measure and even then, trying to connect those results back to a specific TV ad is impossible.  If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it as Drucker would say.  I always had the feeling in the big tech firms I’ve worked in that TV ads were run largely out of fear.  We did them because we had always done them and nobody had the guts to pull the plug on a tactic that nobody could be really sure did something or not.  I always assumed that if we were starting fresh, the TV ads would never have happened.

Then Google does a TV ad.  At the Superbowl. Why?  Is it to reach some part of the population that’s never heard of them? Unlikely – this is the United States we’re talking about.  Was it to show off a new feature that maybe we hadn’t heard of?  Nope, the ad didn’t do that.  To launch a new product?  Nope again.  So what did the ad do?

The ad, in a word, was sweet.  It was a love story.  It was designed to have you reaching for a tissue by the end.  And people loved it because seriously, what’s not to love about that?  There was no ego.  There was no technical feature by feature sales pitch on the new Google phone.  The entire point of this ad was to make you feel good.  And by that I mean the point was to make you feel good about Google.  I thought it was a great ad, as far as ads go.

Now here’s the part where I start to worry.  If everyone already felt good about Google, would they run an ad?  What’s going on with the public perception of Google that made them feel that now was the time to influence how we feel about them?  A cynical person might start wondering if the news coming from Google lately – employee departures, growth slowing, nobody likes Google Wave, they are pulling out of China – isn’t starting to make the folks on the inside worry a bit.  Could this ad be a reaction to that?

But then again, maybe they are just being pro-active.  Maybe they look at Apple and say, nobody seems to mind it when Apple does things like lock all of your content in a proprietary format or offers a mobile platform where it controls which applications will or will not be available to run on it.  Maybe they figure we love Apple for the ads.  Heck, maybe we do.  If nothing else, the ad certainly got us all talking.

As for me, I use Google search and although I appreciate the ad, it’s not going to change my behavior in any way, nor does it make me think Google is a nicer company because of it.  It makes me want to go to Paris.  I think I’ll Google some flights right now.

You can watch the ad (and the others in the series) here.

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31 thoughts on “The Google Superbowl Ad: Why Now?”

  1. Interesting question. What struck me in the ad is one thing: they are telling a story about Connecting People. As in Nokia’s claim. This makes total sense in that they are realizing that, while Google is perceived as a lot of things, and many even positive, the are definitely NOT seen as socially relevant. And the must realize that social has a substantial role to play in the future of search. So, in a nutshell, they are saying: look what connections we help create.

  2. I had the same question, and 2 thoughts came to mind:

    1. They can afford it. The ad itself isn’t new – it’s been available online for a while now. Yes the 30s during Superbowl is crazy expensive, but considering how cheap it must have been to produce the ad in the first place, this amount of money shouldn’t hurt them too much.

    2. Coke also still advertises, even though everyone knows who they are. You’re right — at this point it’s not about awareness any more, it’s about how we feel about them. (Side note – even though the movie “The Invention of Lying” is pretty bad, I like how they portray “honest advertising” — Pepsi’s slogan is “Pepsi – for when Coke is not available”…)

    So all in all, I just can’t see the downside for Google. How can you *not* love the ad? It’s all about emotion on this one…

    1. Hi Rian,
      Thanks for the comment. I was a bit surprised when the ad was the same one I had seen earlier on YouTube, but it’s possible they did that to test them a bit before picking which one to show on the day.
      I hear you about Coke but there is data that shows that advertising will have an impact on purchases of things like softdrinks. The data to support this for tech services is much shakier. Who knows though – maybe the answer is more like Robin suggests. The whole thing was a test. A really, really, expensive test….
      April

  3. Hey April, I can’t take credit for this theory, but its been suggested that perhaps Google was testing the impact of TV advertising, as well as how certain search terms perform after direct suggestion of what to search for.

    Google is a numbers company, always trying to optimize the # of searches people do, so this theory seems interesting.

    1. Hi Robin – oh I love the idea that they might have been doing something like that! Most marketing is more about testing the first time you do it so that makes a lot of sense (but boy what an expensive test!). The only flaw in that logic I can see is that the superbowl is really in a category of its own when it comes to advertising. I don’t know any other show where people watch just for the ads and folks actually get up to get a snack when the show comes back on. Does the data you gather at the superbowl look anything remotely like the data for any other show? Still, I love this theory 🙂
      April

  4. Did you see google’s 2009 year-end results? When you have $24.5 BILLION in the bank and you make a ads that everyone loves, you run it during the superbowl just for the hell of it. The question isn’t “why”, it’s “why not?”

    1. LOL – well I suppose that’s entirely possible. But they’ve had tons of money for years – why do it now and not last year? Suddenly I really want a marketing job at Google 😉
      April

  5. As the Ries duo preaches in The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, advertising does have its place. You use advertising to maintain a brand, not to build it. Thus Google is running ads precisely when it should be.

    I haven’t even seen the ad yet, so I can’t comment on its effectiveness. I’ll trust you on that one, April 🙂

    1. Roger,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m a real advertising skeptic. I know that the theory says for some brands you need to do it to maintain the brand and I agree for some things like soft drinks. I want to believe that we’ve moved past TV advertising so I guess I was disappointed to see Google go that way. It will be interesting to see if they continue to run the ads or if it was simply a one shot deal for the superbowl.
      April

  6. If I was Google and given the recent attack from China, and NSA ‘partnering’ with me to help protect all the data, I’d consider ads like the one shown at the Superbowl. My goal is to build rapport as a personal, caring company, Effectively increasing the emotional bank account with the world.

    Why? As a company Google holds lots of data on lots of people. Much of it private and personal with applications like gmail, googleDocs, GoogleCalendar, Googlemaps, GoogleVoice, GPS tracking with Google maps and mobiles, user searches, Instant messaging, and other data. At some point someone is going to successfully breach some system and extract personal data from Google and it will be in the press. Or at some point the value of a particular business opportunity might be too great to execute a deal that is questionable in the eyes of privacy advocates. The more rapport I can obtain ahead of time, the easier to manage scenarios if/when they happen.

    Some would say I am cynical I guess.

    1. Hi Michael,
      You make some great points. I don’t think that’s being cynical – some have suggested that MS should have been more proactive about this in the days before their anti-trust issues.
      April

  7. A great post April and insightful in that I think most people missed the fact that this was the first Google commercial they had ever seen on TV. Google is already such a big part of our lives it felt natural.

    I give the ad and the placement high marks for the following reasons:

    1. Like you mentioned if we could start over we wouldn’t do TV ads. I agree 90%, the 10% being that we would still do the superbowl. Simply because it works, even if your ad stinks people talk about it the next day.

    2. As Google becomes larger and larger it needs to remind people that it is not Microsoft. Profiling the softer side of search was an interesting reminder that Google is always there for us, like a friend, who never turns you down when you ask for a favour.

    3. What stood out to me was that they showcased the google experience, not that it was a better search engine than others. It was also highly brand consistant. Googles search page is extremely simple. No grandstanding graphics, ads, or distractions. This commercial was just that as well. High marks for translating such a consistent message to a medium that is so often over cluttered and noisy.

    1. Michael,
      That’s a great point that if you were going to do 1 TV ad ever, it would be at the superbowl. I also agree that the commercial was great and fits very well with the Google brand.
      April

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  14. I gotta wonder if this wasn’t an attempt to remind people that Google rocks. And by that, I mean Bing sucks.

    Bing has made a bunch of forays into various avenues this year. They haven’t been successful (much). So GOOG thinks to itself “why wait for bing to get a hit?”.

    And having a Superbowl ad puts them in with pretty decent company.

    One more thought: maybe, rather than product mktg, this was more of a company-recognition push. “Honey, you mean there is a real-live company behind that internet thingy, with people and everything? Maybe we should invest!”

    greg.fenton

    1. LOL – well, it could be more for the stock than anything else. If nothing else it reminds investors that they have a mountain of cash in the bank and if some competitor were to give them some trouble, they have the means to put up more than a good fight.
      Thanks for the comment Greg.
      April

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  17. Hi April,

    Excellent post and really interesting topic. Steve Blank offers some useful tidbits to analyze this:

    – In a monopoly or duopoly where 1-2 companies own >74% of the market a new entry will have to outspend the incumbent’s sales and marketing budget by a factor of x3 to get any traction (chap. 5 of 4 Steps to the Epiphany)
    – Google has optimized it’s video ads by optimizing on YouTube and Hulu for weeks if not months now. So they likely have a great understanding of brand impact from their ad and might even be increasing this multiple to 3.5 or 4.
    – Bing is, for all intents and purposes, a new market entry.

    Combine these facts and I would guess that Google is defending their market share vs. MS by increasing the S&M budget. Basically MS will have to buy more than 3 Superbowl ads for every one Google does to get any traction.

    MS is also pursuing a similar tactic to defend against market entry into OS space by Google. Humorously, MS is defending via advertising to consumers in the OS space and Google is targeting developers and hardware manufacturers. In terms of strategy, I do not believe a war of attrition favors MS on those burn terms. They will burn more cash then Google to defend mind share and hurt their bottom line and stock price.

    Alternatively Explanation? Google just has waaaaaaay too much money.

    Thanks for the article,
    Tristan

    1. Hi Tristan,
      Thanks for the comment. You make a good point that Google might simply be defending themselves against MS and Bing. As you say, it is extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent (although we have seen it happen without significant marketing spend but it’s rare) but if you happen to have a few billion sitting in the bank, it might not hurt to defend your turf with a bit of marketing, even if you haven’t done it in the past.
      April

      1. What I’m really curious now is if they’re laying fiber ’cause they realize Wave won’t work without a significant boost in bandwidth capabilities. Please give a hollar if you have any speculation about that.

        Frightening really. They’re doing the things I think the government should be taking care of as a common good. Quite a lot of power if they go for a horizontal monopoly.

        Thanks,
        Tristan

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