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Magazines > Information Today > July/August 2007
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Information Today

Vol. 24 No. 7 — Jul/Aug 2007

UpFront with Barbara Quint
Ask.comís New Ad Strategy
By Barbara Quint


[Editor’s Note: Here’s one column that generated enough buzz for us to offer you a Point/Counterpoint on the topic. (Counterpoint: The Art of Generating Buzz, by Dick Kaser) Read on for what’s been happening at Ask.com and the wonderful world of advertising.]

As you read this, the cause célèbre driving the writing of this column may have disappeared. On the other hand, it may not have, given that the Long Tail phenomenon seems to extend to everything these days, even television ads. Whoops … you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? When I start writing backward, it means I’m hopping mad.

On a Friday night in June, while watching an episode of Law & Order on NBC, I saw a commercial for Ask.com’s new algorithm interface. It’s not every day that you see a commercial on prime time for a Web search engine. The irony of someone paying network television ad rates to promote a free service continues to amuse me, so I stayed to watch the ad instead of flipping away to another channel. Well, I don’t know whether I can say I’m glad I did, but, if it had to be someone, it might as well be me.

A middle-aged male with a smirk on his face stands there on a Radio City Music Hall-size stage singing over and over again, “I got what I was looking for.” And what he was looking for—as an initial over-the-shoulder glance at a huge screen displaying a scantily clad female buttock—was “chicks with swords.” And he sure found them, because the stage then fills with a Rockette-long chorus line of “chicks” brandishing swords as they prance around in abbreviated centurion underwear. Just to make sure the audience knows what tool brought Mr. Smirk his satisfaction, the commercial ends with a picture of the terms “chicks with swords” entering a standard search statement box.

Commercial costs being what they are, this ad must have cost Ask.com a mint to make, as well as a mint to run. Another ad for the new algorithm service I have seen on cable channels only required a backyard barbecue and four dim-witted beer drinkers. I suspect the cheaper channel and the cheaper cost of ads on cable channels will mean this commercial gets a lot more play. But this hardly excuses a major commitment to producing a commercial that none too subtly seems to promote the use of the newly redesigned service to sniff out Internet porn. When I went to the site and put in “chicks with swords” to see what turned up, I noticed that one of the features in The Algorithm—Expand Your Search—suggests alternative search strategies. The first suggested alternative on the list was “babes with blades.”

Of course, my reaction to the ad may have been triggered in part by the fact that both the Law & Order episode I was watching and the episode of NUMB3RS I recorded for delayed watching had the same plot theme—the use of the Internet by sexual predators. Or maybe it was just my old feminist instincts on the rise again, the ones that prefer women to be presented as people, not objects, or at the very least as entire objects, not body parts.

The Language of Peer Pressure

Now the purveyors of this ad may charge me with prudishness. The words “geezer” and “Marian the Librarian” and “can’t take a joke” may arise. Fortunately, I learned to despise the language of peer pressure long ago. In fact, as I recall, I identified peer pressure as something to fight back in high school. One of my persistent failings is vanity, a character flaw that has few upsides, but it does have one. It insulates one from peer pressure, since one believes oneself to be relatively peerless. So that ain’t gonna work, buddy! (I’m addressing this remark to whoever may be writing a corporate response to this diatribe.)

But this ad will not die, even after the ad budget for high-priced network prime time placement has. Why? Here comes that Long Tail of the Internet and its Web again. The ad is on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=yasBpCHHm2E).

Now what harm can it do anyone? you may ask. Well, here’s one example. A librarian is conducting a class in Web searching on public access computers. An information professional is doing a seminar on how to discover the best available databases. A standard element of most such training curricula involves exposing students to multiple Web search engines (“yes, Virginia, there is life beyond Google”). The new algorithm interface on Ask.com (known in the trade as No. 4-and-Trying-Harder) would be a logical candidate for coverage in such training. But what happens when the students in the back of the room start snickering as their exploratory searches find this ad? Is the teacher embarrassed? Does the class discussion veer off of informational topics to the “infotainment” tasks of locating online pornography? This could get unpleasant.

Or it could get more than unpleasant. In January of this year, a substitute teacher in Norwich, Conn., Julie Amero, was tried and convicted of allegedly allowing seventh-grade students to view pornographic images on classroom computers. The conviction could have led to up to 40 years in prison, and it still could. In June, her conviction was vacated based on further analysis of a hard drive, but that only means she gets another trial. Teaching systems that even appear to promote pornography could be dangerous to your professional health.

What can you do to stop this folly by an otherwise reputable Web search engine? What about a protest? Of course, you’ll need the key information to know where to strike, and nothing helps find that kind of information faster than the Web.

Ask.com belongs to a company called IAC/InterActive Corp. Go to its Web site (www.iac.com), which proudly proclaims, “IAC owns and operates more than 60 specialized and global brands.” If you were so inclined, you might contact some or all of these services to protest the offensive ad. You might even go further. You might promise to eschew using these services until this ad was removed permanently, even from YouTube. You might even ask for some sort of public apology.

But Why Now?

But a question remains. Why this ad now? Why would Ask.com put up something that could vitiate all the work it’s put into improving its service? According to press releases on the Ask.com site, the company moved from its longstanding advertising agency (TBWA\Chiat\Day) to Crispin Porter + Bogusky. A press release announcing “The Algorithm” brand advertising campaign in early May saluted the new ad agency as “known for their non-traditional approach to strategic branding and their creative firepower.” The press release only describes the two benign TV ads: “Daddy” with a child ashamed of belonging to a family that uses a lame algorithm and “BBQ.”

Can this new “chicks with swords” ad reveal a failure in understanding how to build broad trust—and corresponding usage—in a Web search engine? Unless the company plans to morph into a vertical search engine for porn sniffing, it better not advertise itself with the potential. Even the average Joe can distinguish between a library and the Pussycat Theatre.


Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her email address is bquint@mindspring.com. Send your comments about this column to itletters@infotoday.com.
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