Order In the Plex Now

Why Google Just Can’t Quit the Muppets

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

 

It’s no longer news when the company that once famously refused to run commercials does so – another sign of conventionality in the company that promised not to be conventional – but it is still rare enough to be worthy of analysis.

Here is the Google holiday commercial, where the Muppets do a Google+ Hangout.

You get a sense of Google’s strategic priorities by seeing that it’s spending millions to promote Google+. The war for personal information is crucial to Google, and it’s the impetus behind Google+, as I’ve written here. Further information comes in a follow-up interview with Bradley Horowitz, a co-leader of the project.

You get a sense of what works well in Google+ by noting that the focus of the ad is Hangouts, a relatively late addition to Google + that has helped hone its purpose. It’s a cool feature, but also makes a statement: this product is about what’s happening now. Google is well-placed to be a leader in real-time presence, and merging group chat into a social experience has been a win.

But there’s another message, too. You get a sense of Google’s culture—and who the people of Google are—by the choice of the Muppets as the stars of the commercial. Muppets are central to the lives of Googlers. The vast majority of Googlers are people in their twenties and thirties who have completed the perilous obstacle course of the meritocracy, probably starting when their ambitious parents plucked them in front of the telly to absorb the lessons of Big Bird and Count Von Count. (My bet is that many of those parents were otherwise parsimonious with tube time.) Along with the lessons, they bonded with the puppets, much as toddlers get fixated on blankies and stuffed animals.

As a result, even the most math-geeky Googlers kind of melt at the sight of Miss Piggy. It’s not even too much of a stretch to claim that the do-goody ethic of Sesame Street was the forerunner of Don’t Be Evil.

The Muppets keep popping up at the Googleplex.  Google’s very first paid employee, Craig Silverstein, was the founder of the Internet group  rec.arts.henson+muppets

One of the languages included in Google’s translation program is the weird (“bork, bork, pork!”) pidgin of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets Show. .

According to Doug Edwards (in his memoir I’m Feeling Lucky) in Google’s early days, the most important chart on the internal web site was the measure of search quality of various engines. Each line on the chart (representing the effectiveness of a given company in delivering results) was labeled by a Muppet character. Google’s label for itself was “The Great Gonzo.”

Naturally, Google expresses its Muppet-philia in its famous doodles. The Muppets are to the Google home page as guest host Alec Baldwin is to Saturday Night Live. In late 2009, Google decided to run an entire week of doodles to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Muppets.

This year, the Muppets had a movie to promote and the Google connection was never stronger. To introduce its revamped Hangouts (and in a harbinger of the television commercial to come), Google did an introductory Hangout with the Muppets and the human actors in the movie. Google also did a Muppet themed A Google A Day puzzle, with a week of Muppet-related queries, with questions from Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Sam Eagle and Miss Piggy.

This past September, Jim Henson would have been celebrating his 75th birthday if he lived. So of course Google did another Muppet doodle, this time in collaboration with the Hensen company itself. Jim’s son Brian, took over Google’s Official Blog to write a tribute to his dad. This is part of what he wrote:

Jim was clearly a great visionary. But he also wanted everyone around him fully committed creatively., . . . Every day for him was joyously filled with the surprises of other people’s ideas. I often think that if we all lived like that, not only would life be more interesting, we’d all be a lot happier.

The ethic of Jim Henson as expressed above is totally in synch with Google’s self image.  Google people see themselves as creative folk who make people happy the way Henson made them happy when their parents planted them in front of the television as part of the long march towards high SAT scores. No wonder there’s a gaping disconnect between the way Googlers think about their company and the way critics paint it–not as a high-tech art colony but an overly powerful, privacy-gobbling market dominator.

Considering the deep imprinting of Muppetry on the Google mindset, the tv commercial won’t be the last of the partnership of the Henson’s puppets and the Internet giant. Google will be hanging out with the Muppets for a very long time.

3 Comments

Leave a comment