February 9, 2013

With Microsoft Ads, We’re All Scroogled

Microsoft is at it again with another pitiful advertising campaign. The Redmond company’s latest “Scroogled” effort is straight out of 2004 – raising privacy concerns about Google’s Gmail service that were settled long ago.

Why now? Apparently the brain trust at Microsoft believes a smear campaign is the best way to get people to check out its email service. One of the drivers may be pollster Mark Penn, a member of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign with a reputation for cutthroat advertising. Microsoft hired him several months ago to bring a sharper edge to its efforts.

The result has been something worthy of that very sharp-tongued presidential primary. In December, Microsoft first launched a “Scroogled” campaign to criticize changes in Google Shopping. That effort at least had moderately better merits, as Google Shopping started allowing vendors to pay for better search results placement.

However, the questions about how Google uses Gmail content to generate ads have been settled long ago. Yes, the company’s advertising servers scan email contents to generate more targeted advertising. No, no one reads your email. If they read mine, they would likely fall asleep from boredom. Those of us who use and like Gmail have been willing to make the trade because it is by far the superior email service. Also, its two-step authentication system makes it far more secure than Hotmail or Outlook.

A main line of argument from Microsoft is found in a series of screenshots showing a user’s Gmail inbox. Some key words are highlighted to show the seemingly eerie similarity to the ad contents. For example, in one email divorce attorneys are discussed, with of course advertisements for such services then appearing next to the messages.

I have noticed these type of configurations myself a few times and found them slightly unsettling. Yet again, there is a simple solution: don’t click the ads. Or if this bothers you too much, then Gmail probably is not the best choice for you. But one should realize we live in an era of data-for-services. In exchange for getting things like Gmail, Facebook, and other online applications we pay with our data. We have the right to demand full disclosure of how it is used, but it is naive to think that Google and other companies build these products out of pure altruism. You must pay to play., Microsoft’s competing email web app, is in itself a fine product. This new ad campaign, however, has besmirched what Microsoft has built by overlaying it with cheap, political baggage. Instead of just working quietly at building a better product, Microsoft has chosen to be loud, annoying, and obsolete.

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