[This piece was original posted at canarytrap.net]
Much has been said about Google's Parisian Love superbowl ad in the last week, much of it ranging from positive to gushing adoration. I was no exception, discussing the way google demonstrated its understanding of the culture of seeking. My last post focused on the content of the ad, which was lovely, but content doesn't exist in a vacuum. A quotation from Ian Schafer, and my consequent discussion with him on twitter, inspired me to write a follow-up that looks at the ad in context.
Google's Parisian Love inspired a lot of amorous reciprocation from people who've devoted a significant chunk of their intellectual energies to thinking about advertising and made a dent on twitter, but it didn't make it into Nielsen's most liked or most recalled ads. Part of it was the Q3 placement, of course. Almost all of the highest Nielsen-ranked spots ran during the first and last quarters of the game -- presumably when more people were tuned in to the action. But nevertheless, the question remains: Google spot was certainly affecting, but was it effective?
"An online film that became an ad"
Google's ad feels out of place amongst the raucous humor and tone of not only the other big ads, but the superbowl in general. But here I think Google again goes deeper than the surface presentation, beyond what a big sporting event looks like to what it means, it's place in our culture(s). Major sporting events, particularly those on a national scale, bank heavily on the idea of disparate atomized individuals coming together in shared sentiment, much like the death of a celebrity. They also play strongly to feelings of community, connectivity, nostalgia, and legacy. In that light, Google's ad seems to match the emotional appeals of the event, if not its tone and presentation.
Its disparity in presentation is also consistent with Google's brand, which leans heavily on a certain iconoclasm, the myth of a rag-tag team of innovators that consistently proves to the world that big doesn't mean bad. In this sense, the biggest danger to Google's brand is its own success. Google new Buzz sought to collect all our current social media tendencies under one google-sponsored ad-driven roof and triggered a privacy controversy and user backlash, they just bought Aardvark, memorably acquired YouTube and some other smaller services a while back, and just got into hot water for shutting down music blogs. The more prominent and pervasive Google's services get, the more difficult it becomes to fend of the mumblings of big-brotherism, of being just another mega-corporation consolidating its power, however benevolent its origins. That's why Google's Superbowl ad had to be "ineffective" in advertising-response terms. Superbowl advertising is a beacon of corporate, profit-driven consumerism and Google's challenge has always been proving to us that it's based in different values.
But perhaps most importantly, as Faris Yakob's great analysis explains, in a lot of ways, the Superbowl spot wasn't an advertisement for its search product at all. It was a demonstration to potential advertisers, according to Andrew Frank, that it "is not afraid of TV" and can integrate the internet with traditional broadcast media. Parisian Love wasn't a commercial -- it was just another one of Google's series of online videos. That Parisian Love ran on TV, during the Superbowl, was the advertisement. In other words, Google's ad didn't suit its context. The context was the advertisement.