The one that got away

In the 1997 movie L.A. Confidential there is a scene in which Kevin Spacey’s character, Sergeant Edmund Exley, recounts the tale of ‘Rollo Tomasi’, the name he gave to the unidentified street criminal who killed his father. In the film, Rollo Tomasi becomes synonymous with the idea of the one that got away.

I was reminded of this when reading Think of me as Evil: Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising’ published last month by the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-UK.

The report takes as its starting point a typically hyperbolic comment by my friend Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy, in which he states that he “would rather be thought of as evil than useless.”

I couldn’t help but think that a more accurate subtitle for the report would have been Reopening the Ethical Debates in Advertising’, because as the authors Jon Alexander, Tom Crompton and Guy Shrubsole acknowledge, these issues have been discussed over the last 50 years ever since Vance Packard published his famous critique of advertising, The Hidden Persuaders.

In this latest contribution to the debate, the authors argue that ‘modern advertising’s impact on British culture is likely to be detrimental to our wellbeing, and may well exacerbate the social and environmental problems that we collectively confront.’

To its credit, the report sets out the evidence in a reasonably balanced way, but what I found striking was the fact that the entire discussion failed to make any reference to the world’s largest advertising company. This is a company that claims to do no evil, but has grown several times larger than WPP by creating what is possibly the most efficient advertising model ever. Of course I’m talking about Google.

You could argue that Google doesn’t deserve this distinction because it is not the creator of the vast amount of advertising it serves to us everyday as we search the web, but that would be to miss the point. Google has revolutionised the advertising industry by democratising it.

In the world before Google, in order to reach customers, a business had little choice but to engage an advertising or marketing agency of some description. This was (and remains) a costly business best suited for those with deep pockets.  Google changed all this by providing businesses with a direct means of targeting potential customers very precisely and quickly, for as little or as much as that business was prepared to pay.

The net result is that Google’s technology has generated far more adverts than any ad agency on the planet, netting billions of dollars in profits for itself in the process.

Yet the word ‘Google’ doesn’t appear on any of the report’s 60 plus pages and there is only a passing reference to the impact of ‘Online search engine technologies and the information stored by social networking sites and webmail services’.  This is a testament to Google’s ability to act as a Hidden Persuader. It presents itself as a technology business with a mission to provide free access to information, but as someone once wisely said, “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

The genius of the Google is not just its ability to serve ads based on search queries. The Pay Per Click (PPC) model effectively sells users to advertisers. Unlike Spotify, there is no ad-free model on Google search.

Google is by no means alone. Its model is now the industry standard for online businesses and is being replicated by Facebook and Twitter among others. But the fact that Google has escaped being tarnished by the same brush as the advertising industry demonstrates that for now at least, it really is Rollo Tomasi – the one that got away.


On 24 November the RSA hosts an Advertising Association Debate ‘Advertising in society: what’s the deal?’  Unsurprisingly, Google is not represented on the panel.  

One thought on “Think of me as Evil or Do No Evil?

  1. Pingback: Advertisers and activists respond to Think Of Me As Evil?

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