SAN FRANCISCO — Like Santa Claus on that one foggy Christmas Eve, Microsoft has summoned Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to guide some precious cargo — a holiday marketing campaign for its Bing search engine.
The advertisements, debuting online and on TV this week, star Rudolph and other characters from the animated story about the most famous reindeer of all. The campaign is part of Microsoft's attempt to trip up Google Inc., an Internet search rival as imposing as the Abominable Snowman was before Yukon Cornelius tamed the monster.
Google has been countering with its own emotional ads throughout the year. Most of Google's ads show snippets of its dominant search engine and other products at work before swirling into the logo of the company's Chrome Web browser.
The dueling ads underscore the lucrative nature of search engines. Although visitors pay nothing to use them, search engines generate billions of dollars a year in revenue from ads posted alongside the search results.
The holiday season is a particularly opportune time for search companies because that's when people do more searches — to find gifts online, look for party supplies and plan nights out on the town. That means more people to show ads to. Advertisers also tend to be willing to pay more per ad because they know people are in a buying mode.
To capture that audience, Microsoft and Google are both thinking outside the search box to promote their brands.
Although the text ads running alongside search results do a fine job of reeling in some customers, they still lack the broader, more visceral impact of a well-done television commercial, said Peter Daboll, chief executive of Ace Metrix, a firm that rates the effectiveness of ads.
"It's instructive that these companies who are all about the Internet and doing things in real time are actually doing these emotive ads on TV," Daboll said.
Search engines are particularly difficult to sell because the sophisticated technology required to make them work isn't something "you can touch or feel in a store, so you need to bring some emotion to it," said Sean Carver, Bing's advertising director. "The storytelling is important."
Microsoft Corp. licensed the rights to the characters from Rudolph's 47-year-old holiday special after convincing their owners that the Bing commercials would add an endearing chapter to the reindeer's story. The rights to Rudolph and the rest of the cast are owned by the children of Robert L. May, who wrote the story in 1939 while working as a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store (May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, later wrote the famous song).
Microsoft is far more experienced at marketing than Google.
For one thing, it's 23 years older than Google, which was founded in 1998.
More important, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were so contemptuous of traditional marketing campaigns that the company never bothered to advertise its search engine on national TV until the 2010 Super Bowl. Spending millions to be a part of TV's annual advertising extravaganza was so out of character that Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO at the time, heralded the Super Bowl ad with a post on Twitter that concluded "hell has indeed frozen over."
Since that breakthrough, Google has caught the advertising bug. Without breaking down its total ad budget, Google disclosed that it has spent $583 million more on television and other advertising during the first nine months of this year than it did at the same time last year.
The investment has won Google some respect in the advertising industry.
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