Modern Love: what Google’s Superbowl ad teaches us about understanding culture

Image by Carolita Johnson, demonstrating the difference between recognizing a trend and understanding its deeper significance

Google made good on all the teasing tweets and ran its first superbowl ad on Sunday night, to the praise of advertising and marketing professionals and all those who fall under Alterian’s Social Engagement Index. I was preoccupied with making sure the make-shift stadium seating in my loft wasn’t in danger of collapsing to catch it during the game, but the next morning I watched it on YouTube. Then I watched it again.

Google’s Parisian Love is everything that people have been saying: remarkable in potency of its message and the simplicity of its delivery, startlingly efficient in conveying a multitude of themes and features, and narratively delightful. But it is also a beautifully concise argument for the need to understand culture — and not just trends and technologies — in advertising.

Trends are surface patterns that can be viewed from a distance. Culture is the all the reasons underneath them, the complex structures and formations on the ocean floor shaped from countless years of symbolic debris and sediment that dictate which way the waves go. Identifying trends is just the first (and crucial) step towards understanding culture.

Humanizing technology, technologizing humanity

The trends/culture distinction is most clearly illustrated when we place Google’s Parisian Love series alongside Bing’s “Cure for Search Overload” campaign, which the Google ad also functions as a response to. Bing’s ads demonstrate their ability to identify habits of digitized world — the tendency towards free-association clicking, those rabbit-hole link excursions that leave us knowing more about walruses than we ever thought possible (or desirable) — by framing it as a problem that its service provides a solution to. Google’s ad shows us not how to salvage our lives from technology, but how technology is a part of it. In contrast to Bing, Google’s ad demonstrates how its search guidance and decision tools were so deeply integrated and intuitive that we barely noticed it was there, letting us put our concerns and desires at the forefront.

The two search engines’ ads reveal opposing angles of approach. Bing’s approach is strangely didactic, and not a little condescending — it presents us a service that can stop us from doing something (finding too much potentially irrelevant information), that can save us from our own feeble tendencies. Google’s approach is conspirational, showing it what it can help make happen instead of what it can stop from happening, implicating itself as complicit in our desires while also tapping into the cultural symbol of what the web has historically has represented: openness, possibility, limitless potential and access. So, while Bing identified a set of behavioral trends and promised to help us find things, Google showed us that it understands why we look.

Cultures of accumulation and classification

Google’s Parisian Love also conjured up for me three famous French writers and cultural critics: Marcel Proust, Georges Perec, and Roland Barthes. Proust transformed searching as an act of desire and recovery, Perec showed us how evocatively life is documented in lists and classifications of the things we accumulate, and Barthes made us recognize that it is the seemingly everyday, taken-for-granted habits and pleasures that reveal the most about our cultural mythologies and our human selves. Google’s ad demonstrates all three principles.

The potent little story at the heart of Parisian Love isn’t particularly remarkable in itself. What is remarkable is the materials of the telling: a love story, yes, but as documented through a search history. It touches upon a long-held cultural conviction that our daily debris, if properly recorded and curated, tells a story fascinating about us. Consider the rise of epistolary novels, Perec’s list of beds he’s slept in, the countless art installations featuring every X-type of object that the artist has consumed over a year. This is a conviction that’s only risen in recent years as we have the means of accumulating and displaying more and more haphazard data about ourselves — we’ve all given thought to what stories our twitter feeds, delicious tags, and facebook profile interests might tell about us accumulated over time.

In that same way, Googles ad reminds us that our searches are not only about finding what we need — they are a document of our desires and lives. The nostalgic overtones aren’t just incidental appeals to sentiment — they do the serious work of assuring us that in an age of so-called information overload, we are still producing artifacts of data that are intimate and revealing. At the forefront is a story about romance, but underneath is a story about our culture’s love affair with the stories the accumulated by-products of our daily lives can tell. Google proposes not only that its search is useful, but meaningful.

The message from google to its users is so simple and clear: we’ve always understood one another.

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  1. [...] last week, much of it ranging from positive to gushing adoration. I was no exception, discussing the way google demonstrated its understanding of the culture of seeking. My last post focused on the content of the ad, which was lovely, but content doesn’t exist in a [...]

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