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The Sophie Choice

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

The Google ad called “Dear Sophie” ran on “Saturday Night Live” last night just like all the other ads from all the other companies. It has been lauded, accurately, as a sweet story, and indeed it is a nice ad. It’s making news because Google has only rarely ventured into big marketing campaigns on television.

In 1999, as I discussed in In the Plex, Google hired a prospective marketing VP who suggested a big television campaign. Larry and Sergey thought it was a waste of resources that might be best deployed towards hiring more engineers. (Larry did suggest, however, that Google look into beaming its logo onto the Moon via laser.) The board of directors backed up the founders, and the VP candidate soon departed. This set a standard within the company of resistance to conventional advertising.

This stuck until the 2010 Superbowl, when Google surprisingly showed an ad . Larry Page told me a few weeks afterward the Super Bowl that part of the reason he was okay with it was that it broke an internal taboo. Taboos can be constraining. It’s best to constantly question them.

Here’s what he said then:

It’s obviously very contrary to what we normally do, and I think part of the reason we wanted to do it is for that reason. It sort of violates every known principle that we have, and every once in a while, you should test that you really have the right principles. You don’t want to end up too rigid. I think that’s maybe Montessori training or something.

The Sophie ad is something different, less an interesting experiment in breaking an internal rule than a simple push for a product (the Chrome browser) that Google wants more users to sample. You can read the background Claire Cain Miller’s excellent story on the making of the ad.

Miller mentions almost in passing that while the storyline was inspired by a real user, Google used actors in the commercial. This may well indicate a psychological shift in Google’s thinking. I once sat in on a meeting of Google’s “creative” team (this is the term of art for those cooking up marketing materials, not an appellation that implies that other Googlers aren’t creative). One of the employees suggested a campaign that would involve hiring models to illustrate how a product was used. She was quickly shot down. Google does not use models or actors, she was told.

There was a strong rationale for this. Actors and models are, by definition, not authentic. Google is supposed to be a fair judge, unaffected by artifice. Its search results do not appear as a consequence of editorial choices but by the wisdom of algorithms that are constantly recalibrated by observing the behavior if its users. Taste and sentimentality has nothing to do with this.

There were no actors seen in the Super Bowl commercial, and that was part of its charm: even though it broke one taboo, it maintained the company’s geeky dignity of logic and verifiability. The star was the stuff that appeared on the computer screen. But “Dear Sophie” is more of a classic form of Madison Avenue pitching. It’s probably something that Don Draper would come up with if Larry and Sergey were his clients. They would tell him that their product, the Chrome browser, has a lot going for it over its competitors, like speedier response and a single box to type in addresses and search queries. It runs Web applications more efficiently than other browsers, they’d tell him, and if everyone used it, it would hasten a new paradigm of cloud apps. Draper would say that all that stuff is well and good. But for our commercial, we’re going to show a tear-jerking evocation of a father compiling an online scrapbook for to his daughter as she grows up.

Straight out of the Kodak playbook–don’t brag about your specs, but play that song about Where Are You Going My LIttle One, and out will come the handkerchiefs. It’s also a stratagem used by banks and insurance companies.

And now Google does it According to Miller, they worked with an agency called Bartle Bogle Hegarty (notable clients: Johnny Walker, Vaseline, and Mentos), whose “creatives” presumably did a casting call for babies and children who would make us say “Awwwwww.”

It was brave of Google’s founders to resist this kind of advertising in the early days of the company. But now Google clearly believes that to connect with the masses on Chrome, it makes sense to hew to more traditional means of promotion. And the positive reaction “Dear Sophie” has garnered is an indication that this was the right choice.

Nonetheless, for the company that vowed not to be conventional, the concession is one more step down the slippery slope of just that.


  • “Creative” is an adjective, not a noun. I cringe every time I read a marketing- or graphic-designer type paint himself with that word. Props for using it in quotation marks, as you should.


  • The commercial also shows a father giving all of the details of his young child’s life to Google, which will make her a much juicier advertising target for the entirety of her life. When she was born, where she lived. For a company that collected Social Security Numbers from the kids who entered its Google Doodles drawing contest, the precedent in this commercial is collecting information about kids. A big dollop of sugar makes that medicine go down smoothly.

  • The problem with this ad is that it looks like an ad for Gmail, not Chrome. There is nothing that is done in this commercial that made me think that I should use the Chrome browser. The commercial itself was cute and made me think for a few minutes that I might want to use Gmail in such a way for my daughter. But Gmail, not Chrome.

  • Sweet ad, but it doesn’t show me anything I can’t do with any other browser, no reason to switch. It will win lots of awards and more clients for the ad agency, I’m not sure what it will do to make more people switch to google’s browser.

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