Microsoft's Anti-Google Gmail Ad Fails -- Not Once, but Twice

Last Updated Jul 29, 2011 4:30 PM EDT

Humor is a tough call in marketing, and it only gets harder in high tech. It's too easy for the jokes to get indecipherable without an engineering degree -- or, worse, to come off like a forced spoof of the cool kids written for a high school A/V club meeting. Microsoft (MSFT) wound up with the latter in a video ad attacking Gmail for stomping on user privacy.

The question is whether it's a case of the pot calling the kettle snoopy. It's hard to find evidence in Microsoft's own privacy policies that it doesn't do the same.


It's not the first time that Microsoft has tried to attack Google on the privacy front. This marketing line has gone on since at least 2008. Last year, it tried a straightforward fear campaign with a video that came down shortly after it went up. Apparently, Microsoft used shoddy research and reasoning and tech savvy people in corporations would have laughed.

I hate it when they laugh at us
Microsoft's hoping to get people laughing with it rather that at it this time:

In this case, it's the "Gmail Man," a friendly, though perhaps too curious bringer of electronic messages that have been printed out in giant red Gmail envelopes. The Gmail Man explains why he's rifling through open messages to a curious passerby, a young girl who's quickly repulsed. Later on he strolls into a fictional office where he serves up ads the recipient says are wildly inaccurate.
Microsoft is trying to push Office 365, a Web-based service that doesn't get the Web. The message seems to be: "If you use Gmail, Google will look through all your emails, but we're not Google."

It's a conglomerate's prerogative to change its mind
But even if Microsoft isn't Google today, might it change its mind tomorrow? Check the company's online privacy statement that governs the use of Office 365 -- particularly the first paragraph in the section called Use of Your Personal Information:

Microsoft collects and uses your personal information to operate and improve its sites and services. These uses may include providing you with more effective customer service; making the sites or services easier to use by eliminating the need for you to repeatedly enter the same information; performing research and analysis aimed at improving our products, services and technologies; and displaying content and advertising that are customized to your interests and preferences. For more information about the use of information for advertising, see the Display of Advertising section below.
So how does Microsoft construe "personal information?" The company gives many examples, including name, email address, surface address, telephone number, and data about someone's interaction with Microsoft's sites, which is behavioral marketing. It doesn't specifically mention the content of emails as something it looks at. But then again, the policies don't explicitly rule it out, either, so far as I've been able to see.

Straining so hard to be cool, its veins pop out
For all anyone might tell, Microsoft might also mechanically review the contents of email messages for accounts it hosts to mine marketing information. You'd think that if the distinction were so important, it might appear explicitly in the privacy statement. This is the same company that just exposed a database of phone and PC locations on a Web map without taking measures to limit access, according to Declan McCullagh's report on our sister site, CNET.

On top of those statements so carefully worded by lawyers is the quality of the marketing. It's reminiscent of the flop outdoor mock funeral that Microsoft held for the iPhone and BlackBerry, but not Android. It's ham-handed marketing that won't ever get the company's products noticed by the cool kids.

In its video campaign, Microsoft managed to deliver two, two, two fails in one.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.