March 28th, 2007

Keep Walking

Ask's Guerrilla Marketing Campaign Against Google

After discovering about this for myself, I created a vlog entry about it...

... I then discovered I wasn't alone in feeling duped by! (The investigative story below is from

Via Valleywag, appears to be running a guerrilla marketing campaign in the UK designed to seem like a grassroots effort against a Google monopoly in search. The picture above, taken by Ben Werdmuller, shows one of the campaign's ads on the London Underground.

The ad directs you to the Information Revolution site, on a domain owned by Ask's ad agency Profero, as the Curverider blog sleuthed out. Curverider also points out that a search on Google over at Ask's UK site brings up an ad for the Information Revolution site:

What's the site's pitch?

You found us. Nice one.

Now look slowly over both shoulders. (Don’t make it obvious. But don’t make it look like you’re not being obvious.) Is anyone watching? If not, proceed to the next paragraph. (Just don’t make it look like you’re going to the next paragraph.)

Did you know that more than 75% of people in the UK use just one search engine to find information? The same search engine. The biggest search engine. The most popular search engine.

If this keeps up, who knows what could happen? One company could eventually control all access to information on the Web! Controlling your mind would only be a step away! Then they’ll have you. All too easy…

But this is 2007, not 1984. So we’re fighting back before things get out of hand. Raging against the machine, so to speak. The machine of conventional wisdom!

We want to spread the message to try something new, to think differently, to be your own person, to break away from the herd.

Join the Information Revolution!

Google doesn't get named on the site, but it's the obvious target. And to me, the "movement" seems like it's some type of attempt to get search regulated in the UK, something that's happened before. More on that in a bit. In reality, I assume the site is simply designed to start spreading the word about Ask over time.

There's a place for comments on the site (annoying, the comments are all stuck in a CSS frame). Lots of the comments show the campaign didn't work perhaps has as expected:

* My name is Situationist Bob and I am hijacking this empty marketing campaign to prevent all this money spent on advertising this site being wasted and I want to divert your attention for a moment to a site which briefly documents the bio of a man who has done more than most to take away our democracy and pull the wool over our eyes. Mr Rupert Murdoch.

* It amuses me that you pitched your campaign at the very demographic that would be most disgusted when they (quickly) realised the site was simply a thinly-veiled marketing front. I hope there is some substantial backlash towards your clients,

* Strange how of the four search engines you provide, only one of them returns this website when “information revolution” is entered. I wonder why no one has ASK’ed about this before

* So i ask myself: What are you about? Why so vague? Why not just come to the point. Name names! Please, what are you asking us to subscribe to here? Give us some facts, some proof, some statistics that tell us for sure we are being lied to, or are deliberately having information withheld! Why is the one search engine more popular than another? How did it get that way? Why do we trust one source more than another? Why is that a bad thing? WHY ARE THEY SO BAD ANYWAY?

One comment showing the campaign did work to get someone thinking about changing still isn't positive when that person leads off about feeling "cheated," as the person says:

I also got here following an ad clearly advertised in an ad space on a tube. I felt slightly cheated as I was hoping for something else, but after reading the comments on these two threads I am quite amazed. Am I the only one getting the feeling everyone who is here slagging everything non-google off almost feels like Google campaigners if anything? Brainwash (or employed) comes to mind. Has all you people who slag off whatever non-google search engine actually tried any of the alternatives? I mainly “google” myself, but this has gotten me thinking.

Eventually, an official response comes in:

Clearly we’ve hit on an issue that resonates with so many. We were hoping this might spark debate and discussion and it’s exciting to see how many people are getting involved.

We’re pleased to see so many different and challenging responses on here, because it shows the importance and need for a variety of views – which is at the heart of this campaign. It is not about whether one brand or company is “better” than the others – there will always be different points of view on that, but to highlight the importance of seeking a second opinion, everyone needs one…two or three!

Taking one point of view, seeing things from one perspective, is not enough - this is the point we’re trying to make. Would you sign up to a mobile tariff without researching deals from the other networks? Would you only refer to one newspaper to take all your views from? Would you buy a house based on the first place you visited? Isn’t it better to proactively seek multiple perspectives in every aspect of life?

So where do we go from here? Well, we’ll regularly add information to the site to provoke your thinking, but the site will only remain as relevant as the contributions you make to it. So please keep telling us what you think about the importance of seeking a second opinion.

It's pretty disappointing, as responses go. It doesn't acknowledge that Ask is behind the campaign, nor does it explain what the "movement" will do next.

I suppose if the point is to get people thinking about alternatives, the campaign's successful in doing that. But I can't say it's successful as a branding tactic. It's raising awareness with some about the Ask brand, but that Ask was the brand that "cheated" or "lied" to get that awareness. How much better if you'd arrived to a more straight-forward pitch that said something like "Glad we got you here? Learn more about Ask as a great alternative."

I've got emails out to Ask for a response (the ad agency itself has failed to response to a similar message I sent earlier, which isn't surprising). FYI, the issue of a search monopoly in the UK is more serious than it sounds, which is why I particularly dislike this campaign.

Back in 2003, BBC technology columnist Bill Thompson asked if Google had become so powerful that Ofsearch was needed, an office to regular search in the way other official government offices regulate things like the post or telecoms:

Perhaps the time has come to recognise this dominant search engine for what it is - a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest.

The argument about keeping away from regulating the internet and the web has always been that the technology is not mature enough or important enough to merit government interference.

Surely, with more than half of UK adults using the net we have reached the point where this argument no longer applies.

A government serious about ensuring that the net benefits society as a whole could start by investigating Google and considering whether we should create Ofsearch, the Office of Search Engines.

His column sparked quite a bit of buzz, especially in a country where state-sponsored television is accepted as a good way to ensure that the public is well served through broadcasting. Those expecting the Ask campaign might be a rival of this call to action are to be disappointed. Then again, maybe not. Maybe Ask's campaign will renew calls for search regulation in the UK -- ironically, a hassle that Ask might not want.

Postscript: See Ask On Ad Campaign: Fun Way To Wake The "Sleep Searchers" for more about the Ask campaign from Ask itself.

Today's song is (for obvious reason), Hazel O'Connor (Breaking Glass) - Big Brother