What does Google really know about advertising?

Whether you consider Nexus One a success or failure, the fact is that Google has never successfully launched anything that required advertising. Does the company know how to do it?

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read

Google has been following me around lately.

I'm not sure if I've made one inadvertent comment too many about my liberal lords and masters, but whichever Web page I happen to visit in order to seek some temporary respite from my complicated life, there I find an ad suggesting I should buy a Nexus One.

Actually, it's hard to call these things "ads." They're little pictures of the Nexus One. Some have no message to speak of. Others enjoy lines such as "it's ultra-light." This is a line I associate most closely with cigarettes, so I don't know whether Google wants to get me into the habit of thinking about the Nexus One every 5 minutes, but somehow I haven't yet inhaled.

I'm told the Nexus One is an abject failure. Or not. Apparently, Google said it only expected to sell 150,000 of these precious devices. Apparently, the company is walking a terribly fine line between upsetting carriers right now or upsetting carriers in the future. How admitting that you're going to upset them in the future doesn't upset them right now, I'm not sure.

The idea, supposedly, behind Nexus One was that Google merely wanted to show us the future: phones that could work with any carrier and didn't require you to be beholden. Right now, though, it doesn't want carriers to throw prima donna hissy-fits and refuse to enjoy the multifarious benefits of the Android system.

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

So, um, Google wants us to believe that it put out a phone that it hoped wouldn't sell too well so that the carriers wouldn't get upset? This is the company that is supposedly so fearless that it is even prepared to niggle Steve Jobs so much that he might actually swear and issue lawsuits? This is the company that wants to be the dominant player in every single vaguely technological and informational category?

If it doesn't want to sell too many Nexus Ones, why is Google following me around the Web all the time? Might I offer a small thought? Is it possible that Google isn't very good at advertising?

I know you'll tell me I must have been at the dessert wine. This, after all, is the company that makes 97 percent of its vast, infernal profits from advertising.

Please, please, put down the baseball bat and take a seat. Have some dessert wine yourself. Google makes its money not from advertising that creates demand but from advertising that directs demand. It does it brilliantly. It has used its brain power to extraordinary effect. But it's a very rational brain power.

Creating demand for many products, though, isn't rational. It never was. And, until we finally reach the robot phase of our development, it never will be. Palm Pre seems to be a lovely example of a phone that might be terribly good but for which demand simply wasn't created at the emotional level. And we see what has happened there.

I hate to mention Apple, but don't its products always seem to engender excitement? Excitement is an emotion. People talk about an Apple formula. It's anything but. Sometimes, the word "magic" is appropriate. It is not a word one associates so readily with Google.

Google has shown it rarely understands, appreciates, or even takes account of the emotional level of your average human. Ken Auletta, author of "Googled," managed to get the company's co-founder Sergey Brin to admit that the company lacks "emotional intelligence." Emotional intelligence is the heart of advertising that creates demand.

The launch of Google Buzz, for example, was a failure of advertising, as much as it was a failure of aforethought. Google communicated Buzz so badly, with such little consideration for real people's minds and lives, that a backlash became inevitable.

Similarly, with Nexus One, it's hard not to retain the notion that Google had no communication strategy. Consider what you felt when Google came out with this cell phone: it was a cell phone. It was made by Google. It seemed to be well reviewed. Cool, huh?

This is all very rational. It isn't enough. What a great advertising campaign can do is to create a fascination that rises far above any rational attribute of a product. It's hard to do. Sometimes, it doesn't work. It's maddening, frankly. And Google has very little experience in the process of creating such a campaign, never mind in the judgment required to choose what the campaign should entail.

In many ways, there's no reason to assume Google should know how to do this. When you think of Google's commitment to research and rationality, a powerful, emotional campaign would have had virtually no chance of emerging, even if some Googlie could create one.

Web meets phone? Isn't that the iPhone? Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

This is the company that discusses 41 shades of blue until it's 41 shades of blue in the face. That might produce efficiency of some kind. It won't produce magic. Who can forget the parting words of Google visual designer leader Douglas Bowman, after he walked out to join Twitter last year: "I won't miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data."

It's interesting how, in certain small areas, Google has tried to create advertising that brings with it some kind of emotional attachment. There was the Super Bowl ad, so sweetly dubbed by CEO Eric Schmidt as a "video." It was perhaps the first time that Google has used a mass arena to curry emotional favor. But what did it sell--at least in theory? Search. Something that really doesn't need to be sold.

Then there were the U.K. subway billboards selling Chrome. Again, a valiant, groping, uncertain attempt to emotionally engage a more mass market through communication.

It may well be that, one day, all retail will exist only online. And Google has succeeded so well without having to advertise any of its wares. But its wares, until now, were virtual, not physical.

The Nexus One, of all products, screamed out for emotional attachment. Here was a category in which look, feel and image count for a lot. Yet by sticking to its online-only model of sales, the company didn't put it in enough people's hands and didn't inspire people at the emotional level to want it in their hands. Was this because Google really, really didn't want to sell too many Nexus Ones, or because the company doesn't have the knowledge, the confidence, the judgment, or the process to create something to make that happen?

Google is great at many things. This doesn't mean it's great at everything. The commercial world is full of products that might have wonderful characteristics, but terrible advertising. There are many products with wonderful distribution, but terrible advertising. It takes inspired creative people, risk, judgment, investment and a feel for people's minds and souls to create a campaign that attaches itself to people's hearts and then slips a little lower into their pockets.

Google could have chosen to inspire people with the astounding, indispensable machine that is the Nexus One. It didn't. Was it really because it didn't want to sell too many? Or might it have been because it didn't know how? And if Google really didn't want to sell too many Nexus Ones, why does it keep asking me to buy one?