Microsoft's Mark Penn Mistake: Treating Google like a political rival

When anyone bemoans the prevalence of negative advertising in political campaigns, there's an easy reply: It works. That's not always true in the corporate world. Just take Microsoft's ongoing blitz of attacks on Google, which launched last Thanksgiving under the cutesy tagline "Scroogled!"

The first batch of ads, alleging that Google allows companies to pay for better search results, was roundly criticized as hypocritical and "a joke." (Microsoft's parallel campaign, to convince the Federal Trade Commission that Google had crossed lines in using its search algorithm to favor its own content, was no more successful). The second, which says that Google is "going through your email" in order to better target ads, have been called patronizing, misleading, and "embarrassing." The latest-released on Valentine's Day-hasn't taken much of the criticism to heart. Sure, tech pundits aren't the people whose minds Microsoft is trying to change. But by the company's own objective measure-the number of people who've signed their petition against Google's ad targeting-the campaign is a flop, with fewer than 6,000 signatures worldwide a week after the ads launched.

In trying to cast itself as the company that will protect your privacy, and Google as the greedy snoop, Microsoft may have picked the wrong argument. Though its own surveys and dozens of others by advocacy groups and academics find that people overwhelmingly say they care about safeguarding their personal information, very rarely do people actually base their product decisions around who uses anonymized information to show them ads that are tailored to their interests. In the case of Gmail, it seems like a trivial price to pay for a free service that's heads and shoulders above the competition.

But the message is only part of Microsoft's misfire. The bigger problem is the whole mentality of the crusade against Google: that of a political campaign.