There’s an old saw about the difference between elections and sales: Businessmen have it easier than politicians, since 49% of the market makes a firm well-off but a politician facing the same result is a failure. The relative ruthlessness of each sector, it goes, is reflected in politics’ all-or-nothing mudslinging versus the more genteel world of corporate marketing.
The tech industry might be shaking up this conventional wisdom thanks to its firms’ all-or-nothing strategies; in this new world, 15% of the market isn’t enough for some players anymore. We’re talking, of course, about “Scroogled,” Microsoft’s new holiday-themed negative ad campaign against Google, which includes TV commercials and billboards across the US. The problem it’s trying to solve? Google has 75.5% of US search market share and Bing just 11.6%.
Google Shop, the company’s shopping website, now highlights results from companies that pay to be listed, a move which Google has disclosed in filings and, less prominently, on the website itself. It also excludes competitors like Amazon, which Microsoft contends robs consumers of the best deals. Microsoft’s campaign highlights Google’s erstwhile motto “Don’t be evil,” suggesting that consumers who feel screwed by the search pioneers—we’ll skip the clumsy portmanteau, thanks—should try Bing, Microsoft’s search offering.
The campaign is reportedly the work of political consultant Mark Penn, known for prominent roles in several Democratic presidential campaigns, who was hired by Microsoft earlier in the year. Given the bracing directness of the campaign, tongues got to wagging—”Did Mark Penn swiftboat Google?” was the question at Businessweek, referring to the infamous ad campaign that mischaracterized decorated veteran John Kerry’s war record during his presidential run.
“What makes this most interesting is that it’s not just ‘our product is better than their product,'” a veteran Democratic political consultant told Quartz. “It’s, ‘those guys are doing this in a way that screws users.'”
It wasn’t easy to find political operatives eager to comment on the record for this story. Many firms are interested in working with either company–or already are, as is the case of the Democratic heavyweights at the Glover Park Group, which does work for Microsoft, and Blue State Digital, founded by the Obama campaign’s digital director, which works for Google. “If political consultants aren’t doing work with them, they wanna be; we’re all greedy,” the consultant says.
There’s also the reality that every advocacy campaign today includes online media, and Google’s omnipresent advertising network is far and away the largest venue for reaching the internet audience. “It’s impossible to not deal with Google,” the consultant says, but adds that he just recently began including Bing in his media buys, as its growing market share made the move necessary.
In the political world, voters tend to decry negative advertising, even as campaigns rely on them.
“Is going negative dangerous for Microsoft or any other company? Sure,” a Republican campaign strategist in Washington said. “But it can be dangerous for campaigns. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. If you have a real, true contrast to make, then make it. The real danger is being wrong, not being negative.”
And that could be the fly in Microsoft’s ointment. There is a clear case that Bing is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to mixing advertisers into its search engine results, guilty of some of the opacity that it says Google uses to take advantage of consumers.
“The problem is that Bing also uses a combination of unpaid and paid ads by partnering with comparison engines like shopping.com,” Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist and consultant, says. “Tech savvy folks will also be quick to point out that the website looks like a joke…this is another unsuccessful attempt of Microsoft trying and failing to mimic Google, [but] the truth is some consumers will still connect with the core message.”
Google’s question is how to respond; none of the consultants we spoke with saw much point in it. Neither did the company: After the campaign debuted, it merely issued a statement praising its shopping site.
“Google’s the candidate who’s 30 points ahead in the polls, if you look at this as a race,” the political consultant says. “When you’re that far ahead, you’ve really got a look up and say, is this something we need to respond to?”
But this is far from the last time we’ll see the tech companies adopt the language of electioneering. “Whether it’s opposition research, messaging or coalition-building, political campaigns have road-tested this stuff,” the Republican strategist says.
“You see it all the time—you see those Samsung commercials, which are clearly aimed at the iPhone,” the Democratic consultant says. “It’s always entertaining watching the big guys go at it.”