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Google Super Bowl Ad Fails Spectacularly on Many Levels

The weekend saw a minor flurry of excitement over the Super Bowl ad that Google (GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt hinted at on Saturday via Twitter. And an ad there was, only by television standards, let alone Internet, it was too late, doing too little, offering exactly the wrong message, ineptly using social media, and ultimately insulting the intelligence of the audience.

Not that the insult to the intelligence was the ad itself, because this was anything but inept or tasteless. In fact, it was amusing and actually followed one of the key demands of good marketing communications: Don't talk about the product or service benefits; show them. And apparently it had an effect. According to Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, as of Sunday at 8:51 pm, there had been 1.2 million views of the video on YouTube prior to the game. Checking at 6:30 am on Monday I see 1,489,264, or roughly 290,000 additional views. That's significant traffic, though I'm guessing not equal to what Dockers got with its free pants ad that resulted in its advertised web site crashing. (For what it's worth, since Google's video didn't give the YouTube URL, I'm guessing that the visitors were largely people who had seen it before.)

However, when put into context, the ad was a failure because Google actually delivered a number of subconscious negative messages about itself. Here they are in the order of damage delivered:

  1. Apparently the total social media set up to drive people to watch the commercial was Schmidt's overly coy tweet to his (as of this morning) 39,087 followers. Why not offer a teaser, or even a clue or hint, on Google's home page? If you're going to pre-announce, then do it with a flair, not a half-hearted fizzle.
  2. As Google later noted, the video had been on YouTube for three months. Given audience expectations, to run a previously existing spot during the Super Bowl is like offering leftovers to a dinner guest. Can you imagine Apple (AAPL) airing its famous 1984 ad a year after introducing the Mac?
  3. Google also continued to play coy, pretending that it "didn't set out to do a Super Bowl ad." What were they thinking when they cut the check for the broadcast time? Of course it was a Super Bowl ad. What, they aren't creative enough to come up with something else? That's a bad message to be sending and insulting to people who would be aware of the statement and simply know better.
  4. As bad as the last misstep was, it cannot compare to the worst one. A company that makes almost 97 percent of its revenue from online advertising effectively said, "When you want to push your brand, go to a television station." This is like a beef producer saying that if you want good health, go vegan.
  5. This was also a waste of money. Google has massive market penetration and name recognition in search already. It leaves you wondering whether the company is more worried about Microsoft than it tries to let on. Apparently Bing advertising at least partly drove creation of its "search stories." But why not push the Nexus One, or even Android devices in general? Is Google afraid of promoting any other part of the business?
Even if the video looked good to some in comparison to a number of other Super Bowl ads that drew criticism for a "frat boy" tone, the problems are at best masked, not gone. Then again, according to USA Today's annual audience ranking, Google's ad placed 43rd out of 65.

Google's underlying problem is that it understands some aspects of marketing, in the sense of knowing the power of customer value for its offerings, but it wants to do everything via analytics. That's necessary, but it's not sufficient. When you always follow the numbers, you're by definition behind the crowd, not out front where you can lead. Until it can learn how to figure out where to go before hearing what people say, it will stay behind in areas like handsets while companies like Apple, which do grasp the concept of the inspiration of the few, continue to move ahead.

BNET's Chris Dannen looks at some things that scare Google.