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Super Bowl ad breaks Google's TV silence

By David Goldman, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- If you watched the Super Bowl Sunday night, you saw at least two unprecedented events: The New Orleans Saints won their first championship, and Google ran an ad for its search engine on television.

The 60-second spot called "Parisian Love" aired during the third quarter of Sunday's game. The commercial featured several queries being typed into Google's search field, beginning with "study abroad paris france" to "translate tu es très mignon" and ending with "how to assemble a crib." The ad closed with the message: "Search on."

Google's (GOOG, Fortune 500) ad stood out, and not just because of its schmaltzy content amid mostly slapstick ads and commercials featuring men with no pants. It was more surprising that Google was putting itself out there since the search giant is notorious for largely refusing to advertise itself.

Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt has said on many occasions that his company's dominant market share (nearly 66%, according to comScore) was earned by quality of searches, not by advertising.

Even as competitors like Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) and Microsoft's (MSFT, Fortune 500) Bing have launched expensive cross-platform ad campaigns, Google has stayed relatively mum. Google did run several television ads in May 2009 for its Chrome browser; but those ads never mentioned the company's main search tool.

Google ads, though few and far between, are becoming increasingly prevalent. They have appeared on the radio, billboards and the Internet. In fact, "Parisian Love" came from a series of similar YouTube videos called "Search Stories" that Google posted over the past three months.

But on Saturday, Schmidt tweeted that "Hell has indeed frozen over," urging Super Bowl watchers to pay attention to the ads in the third quarter. After the game aired, Schmidt posted a comment on Google's blog, explaining the ad's origin.

"We didn't set out to do a Super Bowl ad, or even a TV ad for search," Schmidt said. "We liked this video so much, and it's had such a positive reaction on YouTube, that we decided to share it with a wider audience."

Schmidt said that the original intent of "Parisian Love" and the half dozen other Search Story ads was "to create a series of short online videos about our products and our users, and how they interact."

Why now?

Some analysts think there may have been an ulterior motive.

"Google has had its designs on selling ads on television, and it is beginning to develop an interesting business there," said Andrew Frank, Google analyst at Gartner. "Google ... is coming to grips with the fact that the Internet can't persist as a disconnected medium that doesn't interact with other media."

Frank suggested that Google used the ad in part to show potential advertisers that the search company is not afraid of TV. That's important Google begins to ramp up its Google TV Ads network, a service that allows advertisers to put commercials on television through the company's AdWords program.

But there were other outside motivations as well, Frank said. He said Google has been feeling some pressure from Bing and Yahoo's new campaigns, as well as Apple's successful advertising (now that Google is becoming increasingly competitive with Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500).

Microsoft has said that it was prepared to spend about $100 million on advertising for Bing, which debuted last June. Since then, Bing has gained several points of market share (to about 11% from 8% in June), though it hasn't come close to Google's dominant share.

In a Super Bowl in which CBS (CBS, Fortune 500) was selling 30-second spots for as much as $3 million, even a one-minute ad didn't cost Google nearly what Microsoft was spending.

As a result, some advertising analysts think that Google was taking a relatively safe risk at reaching a wider audience.

"It's a big change for Google, but in terms of Google's budget, it's not 'big change,'" said Tobe Berkovitz, professor of advertising at Boston University. "Yes, we're in the digital era, but people are consuming content in a huge variety of ways, one of which is still the screen in the living room."

Berkovitz thought the Super Bowl, the most-watched TV event in the country, was an obvious choice for Google's first television ad, but he doesn't expect to be inundated by Google ads any time soon.

Instead, he thinks Google will pick and choose times where it can stand out.

"If they were smart, they'd want to pick something like the NCAA basketball championship, and they could do ads that relate to schools that are playing," Berkovitz said. "Like the Super Bowl, it would be nimble, and it would get a reaction of, 'Hey, that was pretty clever.'" To top of page

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