Jul 11

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

Google's Authentic Voice Problem

Google had an interesting blogging problem last week. A post to the Google Health Advertising blog by Lauren Turner stirred up a lot of backlash when it claimed Michael Moore's new movie Sicko "portrays the industry as money and marketing driven, and fails to show healthcare’s interest in patient well-being and care"--and then went on to solicit Google ads to help healthcare companies improve their image. She very quickly posted a stilted retraction.

Google has had a very good track record when it comes to corporate blogging. Their product blogs have been clearly identified as product blogs. They haven't smacked down bloggers like Steve Yegge who very definitely don't post in the Corporate Boring voice that MBAs are apparently taught. This, I believe, is due to people like Chris DiBona who get authentic voice, understand how to balance engagement with legal obligations, and how to appeal to the common sense that Google obviously feels engineers have. (I shudder to think how he'd deal with my authentic voice, which I like to think of as "Tim with Tourette's")

However, it's not so clear that marketers have common sense. I feel sorry for Ms Turner, whose post has a painful logic to its existence. Blogs let you communicate directly with your audience. Of course, we're too busy building product to communicate with our audience so let's hire a marketer to do it for us. And when inexperienced marketers get a blog, they all blog the same way. Their voice is as authentic as a Twinkie is organic.

The time-honored marketing blog post formula is simple:

  1. Find something topical. In Ms Turner's case, it was the release of Michael Moore's new film.
  2. Identify the shiznit you wish to pimp. In Ms Turner's case, it was Google's Health Advertising services.
  3. Find a line (however tenuous) between the two and the post just writes itself!

These posts are easy to write, and so everyone does them. Hell, even I've been guilty of it at times. The posts are unsatisfying for the same reason they're easy to write: they have no actual insight or useful information, just the staggeringly unobvious "Michael Moore's new movie is anti-HMO" and "you can advertise on Google."

If your authentic voice is that of a carnie barker, get your ass off the keyboard and stop wasting our time. People who make such posts are the tech equivalent of those assholes who leapt on TV during the Virginia Tech shooting to promote/condemn gun control, or the self-righteous spanktanks who leapt on TV after 9/11 to blame it all on "the gays."

But, ultimately, Ms Turner was just doing what almost all in the Technorati Top 100 tech blogs do when they want to pimp something. It's hard to blame her for that, which is why I felt sorry when BoingBoing, TechCrunch, and others piled on. Their ire should have been directed at whoever gave the keys to the blog to someone whose authentic voice reads like a Newsweek health supplement advertorial.

What followed, though, washed the sour taste of a beating out with the sweet taste of irony. Google, confronted with a media shitstorm because they hired a marketer to write a blog, made her post a retraction that said, in effect, "oh, those nasty words about that movie--that was all me, not Google." They blamed it on authentic voice!

So, to recap, the recipe for a disaster is easy: hire marketers with no authentic voice, ask them to pimp offal, and when they're busted for it make them force out an apology in which they blame it on their authentic voice. You too can make the front page of TechMeme for two days running with three easy steps, though you might get wet sleeves fishing your career prospects out of the toilet when you're done. You're welcome!

tags: attaboys  | comments: 16   | Sphere It

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Comments: 16

  Fran Taylor [07.11.07 07:48 AM]

Google's slogan is a joke.

Let's be honest with ourselves, the slogan for EVERY public corporation is: 'make lots of money'.

The moment they went public, they lost their soul, because now they have a responsibility to their shareholders to make as much money as they can. If they don't, their shareholders will sue them.

"Do no evil" has been transformed into "put your hands over your ears, close your eyes, and shout 'La La La La' as loud as you can".

  Dave [07.11.07 07:57 AM]

Still not sure what you mean by 'authentic voice'.
Haven't heard that term before. ( I will promptly check out Mr. DiBona's blog)

To me Ms Turner had the authentic voice of a amoral (too strong a word? 'Dishonest' or 'disgenuous' then. ) capitalist, placing personal & corporate profit above all else.

This is of course common, perhaps even the norm for marketers & sales people in general, but that hardly excuses their individual responsibilty, lack of common sense, and lack of foresight.

As for Google's responsibility, if Google Mgmt are honest and genuine about their company's motto, they should be hiring and educating a new version of marketeer that understands how to sell without 'being evil'.

Not an easy task and profits may suffer.

Perhaps this is what you meant? I read in something along the lines of "Let's not be too hard on her, everyone does it and Google should have known better." I agree with the 'known better' part but I still think Ms Turner deserved some ire.

"Failure.... it's often the best way to learn."

  Erin [07.11.07 08:11 AM]

I am just here to commend you on your lovely use of the word 'spanktank'. Carry on.

  Benjamin [07.11.07 08:13 AM]

FYI re earlier comment as this comes up all the time... Google's informal corporate slogan is "Don't Be Evil" (not "Do No Evil").

Great post, incidentally. What I've always wondered about blogs like Google's corporate healthcare advertising blog is who on earth reads them in the first place. It's like reading the side of a box of Bisquick.

  pemdasi [07.11.07 09:02 AM]

Benjamin: People in toilets with WiFi connections. Can't be much worse than reading the back of my shaving cream, more than once.

  Fran Taylor [07.11.07 09:05 AM]

Sorry to misquote their slogan, I was being charitable to them.

"Don't Be Evil" sounds like a hack on Chevy Chase's line in Caddyshack: "Be The Ball". You could also interpret it as "It's okay to Do Evil, just don't Be Evil". Being is really just a state of mind.

  J.D. [07.11.07 09:20 AM]

I'm surprised that anyone would be surprised that among google's 10,000+ employees, there are marketers who think like marketers.

What'll be telling is what google's management does in response to this. They'll still have marketroids (my word for marketers who're unable to think outside of the marketing mindset), but marketroids can be redirected away from being evil.

(Well, maybe.)

  The Lodger [07.11.07 09:56 AM]

The only way to redirect a marketroid away from anything is with better (more, easier, shinier) money. (If anyone can disprove that, I'd love to hear the details.)

  Kenneth Huey [07.11.07 10:01 AM]

I followed the link to Lauren Turner's retraction, and felt compelled to add my own two cents' worth. After all, it says right there in the sidebar, "We love feedback. Send us your Email." However, my Email got kicked back as undeliverable-- "user unknown." I wonder what's up with THAT?

Anyway, here's what I wanted to say to Ms. Turner:

You write that "...advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue."

Effective, yes indeed. But democratic? The essence of democracy is that it is a discourse among peers, a discussion on a level playing field.

Advertising is, by definition, hierarchical, one-to-many. A corporation can spend an enormous amount of money having its message crafted by a small army of professionals, and then can disseminate that message to millions of people by, if it so chooses, round-the-clock media saturation, with very little risk of hearing a word of contention.

It seems clear that advertising is, in fact, very UN-democratic, and to say otherwise is disingenuous, to say the least.

  Steven S [07.11.07 02:23 PM]

My sister used to work the front desk at Embassy Suites.

Embassy Suites overbooks their hotel rooms on purpose, knowingly screwing people out of their reservations. They do pay for those people to get put into another hotel, but you can imagine how angry some people can be.

My sister's job was to take PERSONAL BLAME for those people not getting their rooms. It was her fault, not the hotel's, that those people's reservations would not be honored. It was her mistake, her mess up, all her. And so, every single night, she was the target of profane rants by angry customers.

Having to post a retraction is hardly a rough thing to do.

  gnat [07.11.07 03:12 PM]

Dave: "authentic voice" means writing as though you're a real person talking to a real person rather than in the reviewed-by-PR corporate boring press-release neutral professional uninteresting voice. Dave Weinberger tackled it here:

  gnat [07.11.07 03:19 PM]

Steven: wow, what was her job title? "Punching bag"? "Toilet paper"? "Scapegoat"? It must be hard to hire for that position.

  Fred Moglia [07.12.07 06:19 AM]

Asshole problem?!

  Raph Levien [07.14.07 01:50 PM]

Just to add my two cents:

I'm new to Google, and, like Chris Di Bona and Steve Yegge, a fairly experienced blogger from before. I wrote about this kerfuffle on my own blog, but, for some reason I don't fully understand, didn't attract any notice, not even from the more thoughtful bloggers like Nat.

Another excellent blog post on this subject is Deconstructing Google's Choking on Anti-Sicko Campaign Invitation. I think it's especially relevant to this discussion because it dives deep into the linguistic signalling around whose voice it actually is.

As for Google being evil, my current take is that most of us take that idea seriously, but there are no doubt some people on the business side of the house who think and act more like what's expected in typical modern American corporations. As long as people are talking about the issues, thinking clearly, and trying their best to do the right thing, I'm pretty satisfied.

Compare also with the leaked PR memo from Blue Cross, now featured prominently on Michael Moore's website. That comes from the highest corridors of power, and is all about suppressing the movie's message in the service of protecting corporate profits. Entirely a different class of evil, I'd say, than being a touch overzealous trying to sell ads.

  jps [11.12.07 08:26 AM]

i really despise Google... their crimes to the public are unspeakable... talk about advertising dominance at the expense of small webtrepreneurs

  Tom Muse [01.05.08 09:44 AM]

Money is all they want. I guess the got to the point where decency does not matter, just how the company is perceived.

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