Claire Beale on Advertising

You need to play the search-engine game if your brand is to be a hit

A very 21st-century question for you. Which is the more popular: Google or sex? Are you even hesitating with your answer? Clearly there's no question which one most of us spend more time doing. Googling, hands down. But for the ultimate proof, Google itself has the answer.

More people are searching the search engine for the search engine than for stuff about sex. Type Google into Google and you'll find 861 million web pages. Sex - always a good benchmark for mass appeal - has a relatively puny 452 million. In case you're wondering, "porn" - which is apparently what really drives all new media technologies into popular culture - has just 100 million pages.

So perhaps you won't be surprised at last week's news that Google pockets almost half of all internet ad spend in the UK. And if you think even for a moment that, well, it's only the internet and that's still small ad-spend beer, think again. According to last week's stats from the Internet Advertising Bureau, the web just overtook national newspapers in the ad spend stakes. Two billion pounds is what advertisers here spent on the web last year. That's almost half of all TV ad spend, and closing.

Yes, the web carries lots of classified ads that plenty of the other big media don't get a slug of. So it's not exactly a like-for-like comparison. Even so, consider: the internet is now a bigger ad vehicle than radio, than posters, than cinema. And whole swathes of the ad industry are still relatively disenfranchised from it.

So brand advertising on the internet is only going one way, but the really big opportunity for many brands right now is playing the Search game. An example: apparently there were 14 million searches in the UK for the term "credit card" last month - 14 million people actively seeking information. That's a lot of eager eyeballs. So getting your brand at the top of the search findings, that's the big prize. Of course, you can pay to be there (which Barclaycard has done on "credit card"), but there are plenty of clever ruses advertisers can use to get towards the top of the natural search charts by understanding how Google ranks sites.

Google weights sites according to whether they are an "authority" on a subject. The more authoritative Google's techie kit thinks your site is on a particular subject, the higher up the search results you go.

But brands and their websites can manipulate the results. By embedding certain terms into their web copy and ensuring that their site is a link from other "authoritative" sites, advertisers can nudge up the rankings. It might be a bugger to do (and requires oodles of techie know-how and media nous) but the principle is simple enough. Yet it's amazing how big brands can get it so wrong.

Take Daimler. Daimler, being a posh brand, had a certain distaste to referring to its used cars as, well, "used" or "second hand". So the company referred to all second hand Daimlers as "pre-owned". Much more elegant, yes. But anyone doing a Google search to buy a second-hand Daimler is not going to search under the term "pre-owned". We just don't talk like that in the real world. So, surprise, surprise, Daimler's own site was way down the search listings because it didn't include the terms people were actually searching for: "second-hand" or "used". In the financial markets, brands have caught on to this. You'll find a lot of companies have changed product names from Life Assurance to Life Insurance, because punters don't search for "assurance".

Of course, there's a burgeoning quarter of the ad industry champing to help advertisers to work all this stuff out. And, of course, because it's got nothing to do with pretty pictures and big budgets, it's not sexy adland. But the relentless march of Google and its search engine rivals underlines exactly how vital it is for big brands to get it right. Makes sex seem like a doddle.

SEX AGAIN. Or rather, "mastication". Sounds a bit like masturbation. If you're not listening carefully and have a particularly prurient sensibility. So I reckon Trident's ad agency, JWT, thought it was being rather edgy and a little bit cheeky by devising what the rest of us recognise is quite possibly the worst strapline ever seen in advertising: "Mastication for the nation."

I bet they had a bit of a giggle about that one, huh? And I bet they secretly hoped it might stoke a bit of controversy that would give the Trident brand some extra oomph as it launched into a market almost wholly dominated by rival Wrigley's. Heck, there was no hope that the advertising script alone would get the nation salivating.

Regular readers of this column will remember that I gave the Trident ad a bit of a battering a few weeks ago. It caused me some pain to do it because JWT is not an agency in robust health at the moment and nobody wants to kick a sick dog. But Trident is Cadbury's big play into the £300m chewing gum market, the culmination of two years of pre-launch prep. It's not just taking on Wrigley's; it's hoping to redraw the nation's jawing habits. Less hygiene, more pleasure: chewing gum as spit-it-out sweetie. After years of chewing in pursuit of oral social acceptability (pre-brushing, post-curry), now we're being encouraged to enjoy its juicy fruit flavour.

Except that instead of enjoying it, quite a few of us were offended by it. More than 500 were offended enough to get off their backsides and call the Advertising Standards Authority to say so; considering the natural inertia of the human condition that's quite remarkable.

But not nearly as remarkable as the fact that Cadbury knew that its ads - showing a black comedian with strong Caribbean accent doing a stand-up routine about gum and white people talking with Caribbean accents - would not play well with a significant proportion of the African-Caribbean population. Well, I say significant, but clearly that's a matter of some debate. Cadbury's own pre-testing of the ad found that one in five of African-Caribbeans were offended by the concept, but Cadbury didn't find that figure significant enough to call a halt.

Cadbury's reasoning is that this 20 per cent offensiveness level is in line with the general population scores found across the board in pre-testing, which seems pretty staggering to me. And Cadbury says the spontaneous comments about being offended were limited to the African population, the sort of argument you might make in favour of shooting yourself in the foot.

Anyway, the ASA has cried foul and shot the ads: a mercy killing for these malformed commercials. It's been a sorry affair. JWT is not a bad agency and certainly neither client nor agency set out to offend. It seems likely that the combination of a bad creative idea, excruciatingly executed, and naive insensitivity combined to cause genuine distress among consumers. The fact remains, though, that to spend two years, many millions of pounds and an awful lot of energy producing a marketing drive that so many find racist shows a gross error of governance.

Claire Beale is editor of 'Campaign'; claire.beale@haynet

BEALE'S BEST IN SHOW PLAYSTATION 3 (TBWA)

PlayStation has a history of producing some brilliantly weird, award-winning advertisements. Theirs was the original second life, and the commercials by TBWA perfectly evoked the gaming experience. Of course, first life was a quite bit simpler back then. Not just for the gamers - for whom the early PlayStations were addictively different, despite their relative simplicity - but also for the manufacturers themselves.

These days the competitive set (including all the gaming, Second Life, World of Warcraft stuff on the web) is fierce. And when you consider that the three biggies - PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo Wii - have just launched their latest generation games, with budgets to match, ad standout is key. TBWA's latest, for PlayStation3, doesn't disappoint. Set in a nightmare hotel populated with the requisite cast of weirdos, it's as impenetrable, lush and bizarre as you could wish for. And this being geek/youth territory it lives beautifully online, too. And I've absolutely no idea what it all means, which somehow seems just as it should be.

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