The Null Device


Some time ago, I read about luxury goods companies sending free samples to celebrities. More specifically, sending free samples of their rivals' products to trashy celebrities, partly to obviate the need for them to buy their product and also to slime their rivals' brand image.

Today, I see the following text ad at the top of my Gmail:

I wonder whether this could be Google doing the same sort of thing to Microsoft's search engine.

For what it's worth, I know only enough about who Cheryl Cole is to have no desire to watch videos of her. I imagine it is not inconceivable that Google, with their vast databases of users' browsing histories, mail keywords and interests, would be able to infer this from my history. And if they have a model which can predict whether the probabilities of a user liking or disliking X (where X is a product, band, celebrity, political party or other unit of discourse) are increased or decreased by their history of choices, perhaps they can run this model in reverse, turning it into a discommendation engine of sorts. In other words, given a user's history, perhaps Google can predict exactly what sorts of things would be likely to put them off. Which, of course, would be useful for sliming rivals' brands in carefully placed ads.

Of course, something like that would stretch "don't be evil" to breaking point (it's the kind of douchey move you'd expect from viral Facebook game vendors or someone, not Google), and I suspect that Google aren't as resigned to becoming the next Evil Empire in the public's eye to openly start doing this sort of thing. But still, it's a theoretical possibility. The other, perhaps more economical, explanation is, of course, that this is just an authentic example of hamfistedly untargeted marketing from Microsoft (find something a lot of people are into, like celebrity gossip, and carpet-bomb everyone with the same ads).

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