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Microsoft's Bing TV ad: Huh?

Judging from a commercial for Microsoft's new Bing 'decision engine,' the company needs to search for a smarter marketing campaign.

June 09, 2009|DAN NEIL

As an opening gambit, Microsoft's campaign for its new Bing search engine accuses Google of causing global economic ruin. That's cheeky.

The 60-second commercial titled "Manifesto" (JWT Worldwide), which began airing last week, opens with scenes of random YouTube nuttiness (videos of Perez Hilton, the keyboard-playing cat, OK Go's treadmill shtick, etc.). Then the mood darkens. The narrator says: "While everyone was searching, there was bailing. . . . While everyone was lost in the links, there was collapsing." Quick edits of panicky sellers at a stock exchange, disgraced CEOs, foreclosure signs, $4-a-gallon gas, the national debt clock in Times Square.

Uh-huh. So, the boys and girls at the U.S. Treasury were too busy downloading cute squirrel videos to notice the end of civilization?

No, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but you have to give JWT credit for trying to hang the financial crisis around Google's neck. Still, why stop there? Why not blame Google for swine flu, man boobs, mercury in tuna, Spencer and Heidi? Why didn't the creatives end the sequence with a white-hot flash and a glowing mushroom cloud? Too on the nose, I guess. Still, the point is made. No, wait. What was the point?

I find many mysteries in this commercial. The first is how an ad firm with an estimated $100 million entrusted to it fails to notice the clumsy grammar ("there was bailing . . . there was collapsing" sounds as if the lines were translated from Zulu). While I've got my copy-editing hat on, I'd note that a long stretch of the ad's narration -- "Starting today we need the right information to make the right decisions, decisions that help us feel right, decisions that help us get to the right place at the right time, even if it's right around the corner. . . . " -- is so vacuous it practically sucked my eyeballs out of their sockets. At JWT's rates, every word needs to hit like Kimbo Slice.

The whole 60 seconds is a beautiful watercolor of nonsense.

The bigger problem has to do with the Bing campaign's notionally flawed phrase "decision engine." Bing is promoting itself as a better class of search engine that returns results that are more restricted and more relevant, which is to say, more what the user had in mind. To which I say "maybe." I just searched for "non sequitur" in Google and got back 1.8 million results, while the same search on Bing returned a scarcely more helpful 800,000. Nevertheless, "decision engine" goes astray because it suggests that Bing itself, the algorithmic software, the wizard behind the curtain, is making the decision and not the user.

Also, the Bing campaign's take-away argument, that online users are suffering from "search overload," flirts with a kind of information totalitarianism. "Less is the new more," Microsoft's general manager for advertising, Gayle Troberman, told AdAge. That sounds alarmingly like "The choice is the burden."

Anyway, can we start a betting pool on when the phrase "decision engine" dies choking on its own inanity? I'm putting a sawbuck on July 22.

"Manifesto," apparently, hasn't polled well in the Iowa caucus and there are reports Microsoft may have already pulled it, which, if true, would represent a staggering misfire. The other Bing ad, "Syndrome," is better. At least it's funny. It comprises a series of rapid-fire vignettes in which characters pick up on random (key)words in conversation and spit out irrelevant answers. A man in a TV showroom asks his son: "Do we want an LCD or plasma?" And the son answers, in a kind of info-Tourettes: "Plasma is an ionized gas." A woman at a doctor's office asks about her back pain and the receptionist asks, "Backpacking, back to school, Johann Sebastian Bach?"

Cute. But the "Syndrome" ad amounts to an elaborate and entertaining straw-man argument. Generally speaking, a search engine's results are only as good as the query. In my experience, if I ask Google, Yahoo, or Ask.com the right question I get the right answer, usually on the first results page. I'd wager that most users' online search experience is quite satisfying. An ad that suggests that online search is now a sea of frustration is going to strike viewers as weird and inauthentic.

From a marketing perspective, Bing has three problems -- two, once they jettison these manic ads. One is that Google emerged a decade ago as a fully formed, fully functional search engine, and it has gotten only better since. Google isn't a branded search engine, a website to be competed with. It's a utility, like the water or gas company. It's an institution, a verb. Google's incumbency is enormous.

The other problem is rather more conceptual. Bing's pitch -- fewer, more focused query results -- tends to foreclose the "happy accident," the common experience of searching for one thing and discovering, learning, or buying something completely unexpected. You search for "maps to the stars' homes" and wind up shopping for a telescope. This quality of surprise and delight is what makes the Internet an inspiring place and not just a dreary electronic storefront.

Microsoft and Google. Oy vey. To referee the advertising between them feels like stepping between two hair-pulling, scratch-your-eyes-out high school girls who happen to be 50 feet tall. But I should note that Microsoft's ads never mention Google by name -- an omission that seems only to underscore the idea that "Google" and "search engine" are synonymous.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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