Microsoft on the attack against Google in new ads

New Microsoft ads show Google users getting 'Scroogled.'

Microsoft has launched another barrage in its anti-Google ad campaign. It includes TV commercials, print ads, an online petition, and outreach via social media.

It’s all aimed at trying to get users of Google’s free internet services, such as Gmail, to think there’s something creepy about Google. The reason, according to Microsoft, is that Google uses information in emails its users send, to target them with advertising. An earlier version of its Scroogled campaign, in play before the Christmas holiday, focused on Google search display ads allegedly tilted to Google’s advertisers.

Microsoft has hired veteran Democratic political consultant Mark Penn to try and sharpen its marketing barbs. And the tone of this high-tech tussle is getting kind of ugly.

In its new ads and a consumer survey it commissioned, Microsoft claims that most Gmail users don’t know that Google scans their emails to target ads at them. Microsoft insists it only looks at your emails to stop spam.

One ad goes like this: “Email between a husband and wife, or between two friends, should be completely personal. But Google crosses the line…”

Another ad features an attractive husband-and-wife-emailing-team who are all bent out of shape as they lean over a computer: “Google uses my personal email to sell ads?,” asks the husband. “So I get Scroogled?”

The husband worries Gmail ads will get him in trouble -- we imagine, perhaps, ads pushing lingerie or online dating?

Casey Newton, a technology writer at CNET, says Microsoft’s message is clear: “’Google is not to be trusted.’ That’s going to be at the core of this whole Scroogled campaign going forward.” He says Microsoft is trying to undermine customer trust and loyalty in a range of Google products where it’s under serious pressure for market share from Google, including email, search, and even Office.

But Newton thinks Microsoft may be misreading consumer sentiment here.

“Privacy is an issue that often misleads companies,” he says, “because consumers will always tell you that they want the maximum amount of privacy. And yet we find over and over again that they’re willing to give up at least part of it for a really good service, especially a free service.”

Newton says consumers are used to tech giants going after each other on the airwaves. But usually the ads are kind of clever. Like, a PC nerd talking ‘robot’ at a cool Mac guy who can’t get a word in edgewise. Or Android Samsung users bragging on their smartphones as iPhone owners wait on a seemingly endless line for the latest upgrade of their inferior phones.

But the new Microsoft ads? They’re not particularly clever or subtle, says technology analyst Whit Andrews at Gartner. They’re straight-ahead attack ads, akin to what flooded the airwaves before the last election.

“Very few people react positively to being told that their friend,” in this case Google, “is not somebody that they should trust,” says Andrews.

Microsoft spokesman Stefan Weitz says the ads are “provocative.” He adds: “In order to break through a lot of the media, especially for a topic like this, which in some cases is difficult to get your head around, we have to be able to put something out there that people can latch on to, they can be intrigued by it, then they can come to the site and learn more about it.”

Gartner’s Whit Andrews points out one potential downside for the software giant. He says the Scroogled campaign acknowledges an unspoken truth about the battle between Microsoft and the Google Galactic Empire. “Even the idea of using the word ‘Scroogle,’” he says, “we’re admitting that Google is already a verb. And let’s face it, Microsoft is not.”

Google says in a statement that its scanning of emails is strictly robotic -- no Google human ever looks at them -- and yes, it does use paid advertising to keep Gmail free.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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