Microsoft v. Google: Round 3 of 'Scroogled!' Campaign is Problematic

By Peter Bernstein August 12, 2013

In the name of full disclosure, I was a politico in a previous life. In addition, for many years I have been deeply enmeshed in tech marketing. As a result, I’d like to share some wisdom in condensed form that some really smart people passed along to me over the years.  

It goes like this.

First, in politics, like it or not, negative advertising works. The reason is that political campaigns, although they may not seem that way anymore, are temporal. They may not have clear beginning but they do have ends. Plus, events change from moment to moment as the last U.S. presidential campaign proved. And, with the Internet, the best and the worst can go viral in a heartbeat. In this environment, it is harder to play defense than offense. Fact checking and retractions do not grab attention. Initial assertions, regardless of their context or validity, have “stickiness.” It is why the closer we get to an election day the more visceral the attacks become. This is the political equivalent of the commercial world’s “first mover advantage.”

In the real world of commerce, negative advertising too easily can cross a boundary that irritates rather than informs and is not compelling even when that old standby humor is employed to take the edge off. It is okay to point out the differentiated value of your product versus a competitor’s. However, jumping ugly can and often does backfire. Consumers want to hear about what you can do for them and not about why the other guy stinks. The caveat here is that this is true unless the competitor happens to be a purveyor of something that is dangerous or otherwise perceived as reprehensible. Proving that a competitor is a bad actor, however, can be a real challenge. 

I bring this up because Microsoft is out with round three of its Scroogled! ads. If you are unaware, “Scroogled!” is an intense attempt by Microsoft to disparage Google. Its goal is to lure customers to Bing for search, Outlook for e-mail, IE for browsing and Windows Phone for mobile. It also seeks to keep the Windows franchise safe from what it sees as Google’s avarice. The campaign is replete not just with advertising but a website,, which contains supposedly helpful facts about why Google is the Evil Empire of the Internet.  

Image via Shutterstock

The brainchild of former political operative Mark Penn (former pollster extraordinaire of President Bill Clinton and strategist for the failed Hillary Clinton for president campaign), it has gone heavily negative in TV spots. These included early ad that -- ironically, given the NSA scandal -- took on Gmail for Google’s practice of scanning every e-mail. Of course, Microsoft itself got snared in the NSA controversy, which could be seen as a validation of the adage “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

This has been rolling thunder, since the entire Microsoft empire is under frontal assault by Google. To date, if you are keeping score at home, Google has been winning the battles and the war. Microsoft has belatedly and rather ineffectively tried to fight back. It has gotten rough. In the latest installment is aiming at what Microsoft says its app store does not do but Google Play does, e.g., provide personal data to applications developers.

The problem is that the results of the campaign, despite Microsoft’s spin, are not promising. For example, Microsoft has said 117,000 people have signed an online petition protesting Gmail’s ad-driving scanning of content as a result of the previous campaign. That sounds like a lot until you consider Gmail has over 425 million accounts and continues to take share. 

Will this latest campaign to help beef up mobile phone sales work by making it seem like the ecosystem is more user/privacy friendly? I will be in Las Vegas in a few weeks for TMC’s ITEXPO event, and while I’m there, I would love to place on bet on this campaign falling flat as well.

The challenge Microsoft has is covered by the old saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The market, whether Microsoft likes it or not, has already decided that is willing to give up personal information in exchange for what it deems valuable. Even with all of the hubbub over the Snowden leaks, people, for the moment, seem fine with the value they receive for obtaining things that are useful or provide enjoyment despite trepidations about snooping.

There does appear to be a differentiation between commercial trade-offs versus government intrusion. However, while concern about government eavesdropping is growing, most people in the U.S. seem to accept that the price of safety is worth the spying. They just wish that, if snooping by the government is done, that it be done in a balanced way with justifiable cause.

As an aside, oddly, in the case of the government, this creates a catch 22 that sounds good in theory but is going to be hard to execute. The intelligence community makes a strong point that, if they can’t at least scan everything, the bad guys will slip through the safety net. On the commercial side, in the U.S. and most of the developed world, caveat emptor (buyer beware) has been the rule.  

Interestingly, all of this might be a bit of a moot point if default-on privacy was opt-out instead of opt-in. Fine print reading of terms and conditions would become less of a need, and coupled with greater transparency, at least we would know what we were signing up for. 

Microsoft, no stranger to using very sharp elbows in the past, including having antitrust problems over bundling of IE with Windows as just one example, has a credibility problem as a Google critic. The utility of Google is why Microsoft has lost market power, and pointing out a “problem” that most people do not think is one is hardly persuasive. 

I have always felt that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in the Internet age was that, to whomever hosted in a trusted manner my identity would go the spoils. The word “trusted” is the key.  Microsoft may ultimately be onto something in hectoring Google about its lack of trustworthiness when it comes to the sharing of private data. However, the headwind it is facing is the perception that it cannot be trusted either. 

Bashing Google as evil does not make Microsoft saintly. It is a poor messenger for what could be a game changing message, and therein lies the opportunity. There are cracks in the dikes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and other major ecosystems that are trying to in effect monopolize the Internet by keeping us attached to their environments. Things like WebRTC, HTML5 and enhanced cloud-based and multi-factor identity management hold the promise of disrupting the big guys. 

The fact, of the matter is that privacy matters are matters of trust. The company that can be trusted as a fair arbiter of our online personae has a chance to upset the Apple cart along with dent the Google Chrome and break the Microsoft Windows. Scroogled!, to be frank, is not how one builds trust.

Edited by Rich Steeves
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