April 17, 2007

Badvertising

A couple of weeks ago posters like this started appearing all around London (photo courtesy of a randomly selected Flickr user):


They came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and in all manner of locations – on the Tube, on lampposts, on billboards, even on pavements – and generally gave the impression of a well-organised and passionate campaign, though against what it wasn't totally clear (this perhaps should have been my first tip-off that they were not quite what they seemed).

Every time I saw one, with the increasingly familiar www.information-revoution.org scrawled along the bottom, I thought to myself that it sounded interesting and that I should remember to visit when I got home. I figured the target of protest would be DNS monopolies, or something that, you know, is an actual problem (turns out the evil conspiracy is Google) – but I never knew for sure because I never got around to checking out the site.

At least, not until last week, when a new round of posters, with a subtle change on them, started appearing. See that apparently random red oval in the picture above? It's not, as you might have assumed, meant to represent a splatter of the innocent blood spilt by the Thought Police. In fact, it's the main component (sans text) of the logo of another search engine that may or may not have been fronted at one point by an indentured Englishman of questionable sexuality, and the new posters put the text back in.

Yes, it turns out that the weeks-long "guerilla" campaign was all geared towards the final, subversive denouement: Ask.com is also a website that allows you to search for things.

What I don't understand is who they thought they were appealing to. Certainly the whole 'revolution' things seems geared towards the cynical youth of today, but those are also exactly the sorts of people who are going to be instantly turned off and bitingly critical as soon as they find out a big corporation is actually behind it (viz. the number of comments on the site along the lines of "I will never use Ask.com again because of this," "What a bunch of crap," etc.). By setting themselves up as (falsely) revolutionary, they are guaranteed to disappoint anyone who actually buys the whole revolution thing – the entire campaign is just another one of those painfully point-missing attempts at counterculture that, for reasons obvious to everyone except the bright sparks down at the advertising agency, can never truly be counterculture.

It's kind of sad, too, because their marketing people used to be a lot more cynical-youth-savvy. When they realised how much they had lucked out by creating a mascot so ridiculously lame that he became cool to a world of ironic hipsters, they grabbed that opportunity and went with it. That's why you used to be able to Ask Jeeves "Is Jeeves gay?" and have it redirect to a special page with a picture of a clucking (figuratively) Jeeves and the text "I prefer the term jovial," or something similarly tongue-in-cheek. As far as viral marketing on the internet went, that was an early gem: I was asking Jeeves about his sexuality at least seven or eight years ago, and telling all my friends about it, too. That's the kind of mindset they need to tap back into if they really want to attract their internet-savvy demographic.

Also, it might help if they had a search engine that was mildly useful. But I think we all know that would be harder work.

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