An ostensibly grassroots tube advertising campaign promoting the website information-revolution-org was outed (Curverider) late last week as a flimsy bit of astroturfing carried out by Profero for the Ask.com search engine.
The campaign imagery was pure ripped-off Banksy and the (bungled) secrecy, added to the combination of tube ads with search ads and possibly flypostering, seemingly aimed to lend the campaign an underground, guerilla vibe. Some commentators, notably Valleywag, have been at least neutral, calling it "not a dumb strategy" - most, especially commenters on the site itself, have not. One laments:
"You mean they’ve gone from branding themselves as a snooty butler (AskJeeves as was) to Che Guevara?" and another points out that categorising 62% of searchers as "sleep searchers" just insults 62% of the Internet population.
A ten billion dollar American company trying to hitch a ride on the coat-tails of a distinctively British counterculture while pulling the wool over the eyes of its audience, being found out and still calling 62% of them stupid really isn't the best piece of branding we've seen this year.
Searchengineland speculates that Ask's campaign is the first blow in lobbying for search engine regulation, citing Bill Thomson's 2003 BBC column on the subject. If so, and there is little evidence it is, it would be a weak move - it isn't clear what sort of regulations would oblige an Internet population perfectly happy with Google results to move to an alternative.
Ultimately, Ask's campaign against the Googlopoly is aimed at the wrong constituency. To search advertisers, Google may look like a monopoly and they would perhaps look favourably upon a move to regulate the search industry. But for actual consumers, Google simply happens to be one of a number of search engines we have freely chosen to use, and we can swap any time Google's competitors give us a sufficiently compelling reason to do so.