Election season may be over, but we haven’t escaped the attack ads, thanks to Microsoft.

The company relaunched its “Scroogled” anti-Google campaign overnight, featuring ads highlighting the fact that the search giant uses the contents of Gmail messages to deliver ads. This practice isn’t a surprise to most people who follow technology, but Microsoft says it commissioned a phone survey showing that 70 percent of the population wasn’t aware of the practice, and the vast majority disapprove of it when they learn about it.

Here’s the problem: The ads (below) play on that ignorance by trying to leave the impression that people at Google are literally reading the messages and serving up ads. Of course, this is all about massive databases and algorithms doing the work. Maybe that would still creep people out, but in the end, the ads feel a lot like those endless election campaigns full of not-quite-complete information designed to motivate us based on our fears.

It’s no coincidence that political strategist Mark Penn is working for Microsoft these days, helping to lead the company’s consumer strategy.

Of course, the ultimate problem is that these types of campaigns can also work, at least in the political realm. It’s disappointing, but true. Aren’t we smarter than this as a society?

Note: Microsoft Outlook.com and Bing are two of the sponsors of next week’s GeekWire Meetup. Thanks to Tom Warren from the Verge for uploading these versions of the videos to YouTube.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


  • Karsten

    To put things in a real-life perspective, I’m posting this comment I found on The Verge. Tech-folks might use AdBlock and empty the cache, delete cookies and so forth, but this comment shows how non-tech ppl. get into trouble because of Googles pratices.

    “Google is trying to analyze you down to your bones. movies,
    music, books, google play and especially google plus. the data you
    provide shows up in the form of personalized ads, which may be seen by
    your friends.

    Here’s my experience with that: The 15 year old daughter of a friend
    wanted to show me a movie trailer on her netbook. The suggested videos
    (maybe ads, I didn’t want to check that) were about masturbating women…
    yeah, this is the new google universe! Did I mention her mother and her
    boyfried were sitting next to her?”

    • guest

      You’re posting a story about something you saw on a different website about something you didn’t experience because it proves the point you want to make. That’s a little odd, especially when the story doesn’t prove your point – Bing would have done the exact same thing, and neither search engine would suggest explicit content without a user intentionally allowing it (and likely also searching for that content at some point).

  • Guest

    In Chrome, simply press CTRL+SHIFT+N (or, if you will, CMD+SHIFT+N). You are now internetting incognito. Google is literally powerless as it cannot aggregate and sell your data.

    Were all of us to go incognito, Google would go out of business tomorrow. Try it.

    • arcana112

      You have to login to gmail therefore no incognito. Only ads generated after your email is extensively scanned, and your profile is carefully built, on massive servers, holding *every* detail, catalogued and indexed any way google wants, and ….. (you fill in the blanks, it ain’t pretty that’s for sure).
      Let’s not be ignorant here (like that pro-google fellow in a post above): Google is creepy.

      • Guest

        I don’t have to log in to Gmail. Who put a gun to your head and forced you to sign up for an advertising-based e-mail system?

        • guest

          How else do you get access to your inbox?

          • Guest

            Mailinator. Duh.

          • guest

            Not familiar with it. But a corner case solution doesn’t negate the fact that the majority of Gmail users log in, and therefore incognito mode, which isn’t all that incognito anyway, does prevent the scanning and targeting of ads discussed here.

          • guest

            does > doesn’t.

          • Guest

            Again, if the concept of Gmail offends you, nobody’s forcing you to use it for anything important. Use a mail service that respects your privacy.

          • guest

            The concept doesn’t offend me personally because I’m aware of everything it entails. The issue is that a majority of Gmail users may not be and should have an opportunity to make an informed choice, like selecting an alternative mail service “that respects your privacy”.

          • Chris

            Respect our privacy BS, if MS really respects our privacy, they would make a better OS that’s not prone to viruses and other malwares that harvests more dangerous data than just key words on an e-mail.

          • Brian

            Absolutely. If you want privacy in a web email product, Outlook is a better choice anyway, as the Microsoft as points out.

    • http://www.timacheson.com/ Tim Acheson

      Wrong — if logged in, not incognito. A user who Google has duped into an unjustified sense of privacy is perhaps more in danger than a user who knows he is not.

    • Allen

      CTRL-SHIFT-P in Firefox or IE.
      I’d recommend things like Tor or the add-on HTTPS Everywhere, too.

      • arcana112

        Doesn’t matter, your email IS scanned anyway. And stored on massive databases for anyone to look, filter out and analyze in any way Google sees fit. What is visible out of this are the “personalized” ads. It’s called “Big Data” baby and Google owns yours….

  • arcana112

    “massive databases and algorithms doing the work” = ouch, that means that it’s easier for Google to spy than a pair of human eyes….
    You actually made Google look even more creepy with your article…

  • http://twitter.com/kpkpkp Kevin Pierce

    Fear and Ignorance – that’s MS’ customer base?

    • arcana112

      Only in this case the ignorant (majority of gmail users) have actually something to fear: their privacy….

  • http://twitter.com/Seattle_Startup Seattle Startup

    Seems like an editorial with opinions drowning out the facts.

  • double standard

    where was your editorial when apple was attacking Microsoft? All the same arguments could be made, but you didn’t have an issue with that.

  • http://twitter.com/mattwallaert matt wallaert

    (NOTE: I work as a behavioral scientist at Bing, so please view my comments accordingly.)

    Take a look at the original survey: http://www.scribd.com/doc/124257005/GfK-Email-Privacy-Report

    It is pretty clear that this isn’t worded to try to be overly scary or to imply that some individual person is reading your email; it even uses the word “scan”. And yet 60% of people don’t know that it is happening, and 90% of them think it shouldn’t be allowed.

    Think about when we were trying, as a country, to make informed choices about smoking. Many of the ads were absolutely “aggressive”, but so that people could make an informed choice.

    We forget sometimes that those who work with technology professionally don’t always have the same views as everyday people. And we shouldn’t get to make decisions wholesale for everyone else. Free options that don’t scan emails exist (yes, like Outlook.com) and people should know they exist and be allowed to choose.

    Why would anyone argue against people making an informed choice?

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Matt, this is great context. I appreciate you commenting and posting the link to the survey. My issue isn’t with the research, it’s with the ad with the eyeballs implying that a person is actually reading the emails. That’s where I feel this campaign crosses the line from helping people make an informed choice to fear-mongering. Microsoft should hold itself to a higher standard.

      • http://twitter.com/mattwallaert matt wallaert

        I totally understand that reservation. It is a bit hard to use symbols to communicate “computerized scanning”, so I appreciate both your point and how hard it is to actually make an ad that is easy to understand.

      • arcana112

        And what makes you so sure that eyeballs are not on that humongous databases where anything can be searched, shorted, filtered out and even traced back to you personally?? Are you so naïve that you think that these systems cannot performed personalized queries against your inbox and ONLY have some kind of abstract aggregated information? Please….

      • http://www.philsimon.com/ Phil Simon

        Absolutely. Great point, Todd. To my knowledge, Google employees don’t read emails. Algorithms serve up ads to support free products.

        Do the math on the number of emails sent. Does Google employ a team of monkeys reading these emails? Come on, Ballmer. Innovate more and complain less. You might be better off.

    • Forrest Corbett

      I’d love to see the results of the survey with different wording. For example, something like “Would you prefer to have aggregate data from your emails used to prevent ads which are grotesk, annoying or otherwise irrelevant to you?” Yes, that’s completely biased in the other direction, but it’s not like the questions in your survey are unbiased. You’re also not providing people the information they need to make an informed choice.

      • guest

        So what’s preventing you from running your own survey instead of complaining about how MS ran theirs?

        • Forrest Corbett

          Matt is arguing that they’re just informing people so they can make an informed choice. If I ran my own survey, what impact would it have on their advertising?

      • yar freind

        your spelling is grotesk

      • http://www.philsimon.com/ Phil Simon

        Surveys can obviously be designed to elicit certain responses. When you work at MS, are you really supposed to be objective?

    • Trickster Wolf

      I don’t think the problem is “people making an informed choice”. People aren’t informed on the practices that MS uses, either (take a gander at the scary-sounding TOS on the Scroogled site itself for an ironic chuckle) and most of its criticisms of Google are things MS already does. The ad campaign is aimed at uninformed users but it’s not trying to inform them in a neutral fashion. It also doesn’t advertise anything new or interesting that MS offers to separate itself from the competition, apart from the negative claims (which, again, are largely untrue–MS Outlook also slurps every word in every email algorithmically).

      This is a one-sided FUD campaign, and it reeks of desperation. If you think it makes MS look like the good guy, that’s fine… but I have a very hard time imagining how a behavioral scientist worth her/his salt can actually believe as obvious smear campaign loaded with framed language like “cheated” and “scammed” looks appealing or innovative to anyone, least of all to expert users. This is more of the same marketing strategy that annoyed users when MS was dominant, and continues to push users away now that MS has lost dominance in most of its markets.

      To reveal my own biases, I have degrees in both psychology and computer engineering. I use MS Office, MS Windows 7, Android, GMail, Google Search (various), and Google Scholar quite liberally. I also plan to move to Linux for my desktop and laptop devices when 7 is no longer supported, even though I will need to emulate most of my software, and I admit this is primarily for cosmetic and preference-based reasons (I have a minor in visual arts and the horrendously garish 8 colors make my eyes bleed, figuratively speaking at least).

  • http://www.timacheson.com/ Tim Acheson

    “Aren’t we smarter than this?”

    Notice that same people making this sort of comment never seem to do so when it’s Google doing it.

    I’ve been following this closely. This comes after more than a decade of serious negative campaigning against Microsoft by Google — together with key allies including Apple, glove-puppets like Mozilla, and embedded loyalists within the the media and the wider tech community). Alongside the public campaign, I know from personal experience how staff from both Google and Apple have also been using every opportunity to say negative things about Microsoft behind closed doors, in a most unprofessional way, e.g. when visiting customers and at certain industry events, through jokes about Microsoft and its products and services — we’ve witnessed some of the best anti-M$ jokes and jibes being picked-up and entered tech pop culture, etc. (This is not to say that *all* of the best anti-MS rhetoric originates directly from staff at Google and Apple, of course.)

    Until recently, Microsoft has refrained from reciprocating. I’ve been telling Microsoft evangelists and marketing folks for years now that they need to do what their counterparts at Google and Apple have been doing prolifically ever since the mid 1990s. Google is now getting a taste of its own medicine — they asked for it and they’re getting it.

    My only complaint is that Microsoft isn’t as good at negative marketing as Google and Apple. Perhaps this is partly because it’s a new direction for M$. Microsoft’s negative marketing is on message, but lacks the hallmarks of accomplished propaganda. Microsoft’s anti-Google propaganda needs to be more populist, more viral, more dishonest, more insidious and unpleasant, both in public and behind closed doors — just as Google’s most effective anti-M$ propaganda has been.

    • guest

      You make a number of points that I agree with. But this is just wrong on every level:

      “Microsoft’s anti-Google propaganda needs to be more populist, more viral, more dishonest, more insidious and unpleasant, both in public and behind closed doors — just as Google’s most effective anti-M$ propaganda has been.”

      Unfortunately it appears to be the path that MS is embarked on. It will backfire badly.

    • PStrohm

      Bull crap. Nice story though. I’ve never seen a public smear campaign by Google against Microsoft. I haven’t heard Google hiring black propaganda strategist like Mark Penn. Give us one example of Google’s smear campaign against Microsoft.

      • guest

        Then you haven’t bothered to look because they have publicly attacked MS on things ranging from IE to cloud offering and patents. But your comment history sort of sums up where you stand regarding MS, so no real surprise here.

        • PStrohm

          Yes, give me some example Google smeared Microsoft. Its easy to say they attacked Microsoft but where’s your proof? If there’s really is one.

          • guest

            In the time you wasted responding, you could have searched for yourself.

          • PStrohm

            I tried googling “Google smear microsoft” as well in bing. Result are all the opposite actually, all are about Microsoft smears Google like this one (in Bing) which I found very appalling

            So I guess you guys are just making things up to make microsoft look they are just reciprocating? pfft….

          • guest

            I gave you three specific examples you can look up. And no, I’m not going to do your homework for you just because your search skills are so impaired.

          • PStrohm

            “I’m not going to do your homework for you just because your search skills are so impaired”

            Lol sure. You just can’t give any.

            I did search for Google attacking Microsoft on IE, cloud offerings and patent on both Bing and Google and nothing came out.

            You MS astroturfers are ridiculously pathetic.

          • Trickster Wolf

            Hey, you get what you pay for. Based on that, I can only assume the MS plants are making below minimum wage.

  • guest

    For me it’s a valid concern and one reason I don’t use Gmail as my primary account. The fact that this information is being harvested electronically doesn’t alter that, though you and Google’s PR department apparently think it does. I’m also not surprised that as many as 70% of users may be unaware of the practice. I’ve yet to find a regular (non-technical) user who was. Of course most may elect to continue using the service anyway, but they at least deserve to know about it.

    The problem, at least as I see it, is that ultimately this is an ad for Outlook.com and MS. And I don’t think it’s likely to drive adoption of the former or enhance the image of the latter. And it’s concerning that Penn, Frank Shaw, Steve Ballmer and others are so entirely out of touch that they can’t see that.

  • guest77

    “Aren’t we smarter than this?”

    Answer: No.

    Look at our reality TV. Look at our “news” shows. Look at our Tweets. Look at how it’s possible to make a splash, stir it up, then vanish and let someone else pick up the pieces.

    As a culture, we are not smarter than this. In fact, this is where we excel (no pun intended).

    (BTW, the dishonesty in MS’s ads is even deeper, when it’s clear that any Gmail being routed to an email client or even their HTML site don’t scan the contents or serve ads).

  • SilverSee

    I don’t particularly care for being Google’s “product”, and I think more people should be aware of what they are trading away when using free services online.

    On another topic, it does sometimes seem that a double-standard is employed by the tech press. Microsoft is often the butt of jokes, with bloggers affecting a ‘wink wink, nod nod’ attitude with their readers whenever Microsoft is criticized. Yet when the criticism is reversed, righteous indignation often ensues. (I’m not saying this is the case with your reporting here Todd, just that it seems to happen frequently.)

  • Guest

    From the email ad: “You need email that respects your privacy.”

    We need ads that respect our intelligence.

    Regardless of the merit or validity of the facts behind these ads, the tone and approach is just offensive on several levels.

    It hurts Microsoft more than Google. They look like desperate bullies here.

    • arcana112

      Now let me see: http://www.scroogled.com/Examples#calico

      “Regardless of the merit or validity of the facts behind these ads, the tone and approach is just offensive on several levels.”
      You are talking about Google’s “personalized” ads right? (see link above)

      • Guest

        No I’m talking about the Microsoft “scroogled” ads. They have the maturity and good taste of a political smear campaign.

        Like a political smear campaign, engaging in them just makes the target look better not worse.

        Mudslinging has a way of coming back at you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/necia.dallas Necia Dallas

    Are these hypothetical people–the ones who are up in arms about Google data-raping their emails–aware that the same thing is happening incessantly on Facebook? And not only when you’re on Facebook, but anywhere you browse, assuming Facebook is open and/or its cookies are still active, everything you say or search online is going to be fed back to you in an ad.

    Try writing “Hey baby,” on Facebook and see how many onesies ads pop up…and not just immediately afterward, but for DAYS. I joked on someone’s status, “Was it the ONE SECRET DOCTORS DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW?” and doomed myself to another 3 months of Rachel Ray ads (including this really gross animated gif of belly flab).

    I am rather surprised this many people who actually have access to the internet would find the revelations in this ad to be news.

    I agree with you, Todd; there are many ways to suggest data scanning (the callouts used in the video, for instance, tell the story of keyword scanning). The addition of the voyeuristic eyes is ridiculously over-the-top, and that is not accidental. That said, my biggest objection to the ads is how poorly scripted and clumsily executed they are.

  • K…

    “Aren’t we smarter than this?” Your question assumes many in the world using email are either sophisticated enough regarding technology issues, or only want to send an email and are not aware of what Google is doing with their information. Case in point. I have a long time friend that has an Android phone. The first of the week and then yesterday he read an article about what Google is doing “to” his emails. He emailed me on his wife’s Mac and said, “I wasn’t aware. What can I do?” So we talked and he is now informed about how to more rigorous in his efforts to protect his privacy… as much as we can in this “snooping” electronic world. So… some may be smarter, but don’t assume everyone is aware. It’s not a matter of “smarts”, but the lack of knowledge and information.

  • Mark

    What’s interesting is that if the situation was reversed, and it was MS scanning emails to target ads, most of the critics here would be condemning MS and praising Google. It’s just no kneejerk predictable. Still, not sure MS went ahead with it knowing that would be the reaction.

  • Peter

    1. The comments section of this story would read very different if this were in a silicon valley blog. We are such a company town in Seattle.
    2. I remember using Hotmail and getting repeated Toenail fungus and Sombrero Dancing Mortgage ads. I’d rather have relevant Google ads than irrelevant ads from Microsoft.

    3. Microsoft should be careful about “demanding” that Google not target ads using signals from GMail. It’s not that much of a stretch to paint targeting ads based on Bing search queries as equally creepy.

    • ctown

      Yep, the comments in an SV blog would favor Apple or Google. How is that any less of a “company town” bias?

Job Listings on GeekWork