A Search Engine in Search of Character

What do you try after you dump your famous butler mascot? Just about everything.

By  |  Monday, October 6, 2008 at 1:42 am

Observant readers may have noticed that my look at the new version of contained no mentions of the fact that Ask used to be known as Ask Jeeves, pining for that old name, or clever butler references. That was intentional. There oughta be a statute of limitations on clichéd references to things which are no longer true about technology products and services. And it’s been two and a half years since dumped Jeeves, so I figured it deserved to be judged on its current merits rather than obsolete branding.


After I finished up that post, I happened across an article in the UK’s Guardian about a new ad campaign that coincides with the update to the search engine, and it got me thinking. Ask is far from the largest search engine, but it may be the most heavily-advertised one–for years, it’s attempted to make inroads against Google in part through multiple barrages of TV spots. But Ask, which in its Ask Jeeves days at least had a distinct personality, leaps from advertising message to advertising message with abandon, always in search of a new way to differentiate itself from the crowd but never holding onto a message for long. After the jump, a retrospective.

This 2005 ad, from the beginning of the end of the Ask Jeeves days, uses American Idol curiosity William Hung and promises you’ll “get what you’re searching for”–which is not a differentiating point but the basic promise made by every search engine since the beginning of time.

This one, from 2006, involves Bigfoot trying to impress a girl. The message–“Use Tools. Feel Human”–appears to be a subtle reference to the fact that offers more way to customize your searching than Google does. But I wondered at the time whether that message tended to play to Google’s strengths: Google is so good it doesn’t need much in the way of features other than a Google Search button and an I’m Feeling Lucky One.

Another “Use Tools. Feel Human.” ad that resorts to the last refuge of a product in search of a message: an ape spokesperson:

This 2006 ad takes what might be called the Seinfeld/Churro approach: It has almost nothing to do with the product. It’s barely an ad for search engines in general, let alone one that provides a reason to try Ask.

Here’s yet another 2006 ad–this one plays up Apostolos Gerasoulis as the creator of (actually, he was cofounder of Teoma, a search engine that Ask acquired and turned into its ExpertRank algorithm). He says that if you’re trying to escape a bear, you shouldn’t use any search engine. But if you do, it should be Ask. Okay…

This 2007 ad has a preroll that identifies it as the work of ad agency Crispin, Porter, and Bogusky–the same folks responsible for Microsoft’s current Windows ads. It’s a soft sell that–like many Ask ads–doesn’t mention Ask until the end. And it seems to think that TV watchers will understand the notion of a search algorithm and be excited about the possibility of Ask’s being powerful…which seems like a lot to ask of TV watchers.

Also by Crispin, Porter, and Bogusky, this 2007 ad may be the most entertaining one ever made for a search engine, and it possibly deserves brownie points for involving a search that’s probably all too representative of real ones. Like the previous one, it throws in a slogan–“Experience Instant Getification”–that I’d forgotten Ask ever had. It’s practically the opposite of the claim that Ask was making just a few months earlier, when it seemed to be arguing that Ask was superior because it let you drill down into searches and explore related ideas.

Also from 2007, this ad is for the redesign from that year which I liked a lot. It involves a search for musician KT Tunstall, takes on Google more or less explictly without quite mentioning its name, and is shockingly straightforward, showing how you can listen to Tunstall music without ever leaving your Ask search results. Very cool…but today’s new version of doesn’t have this feature anymore. (Yahoo, meanwhile, recently introduced something similar, though it doesn’t seem to work for KT.)

This 2007 ad was part of a controversial UK guerilla marketing campaign that didn’t always mention Ask and which seemed to boil down to “Try us, we’re not Google!”

I have no idea what’s going on here except that once again it involves a monkey.

And finally, here’s a new ad for the new–I can’t figure out how to embed it, so clicking on the image below takes you to the Guardian site for viewing. It starts Fat Pat, a character from the BBC’s Little Britain sitcom, and aside from the weirdness, basically encourages people to type in questions and says they’ll get immediate answers–which is the premise that Ask Jeeves was founded on in 1996.

So that’s a quick history of advertising over the past three years or so. Pretty schizophrenic, and not very successful…at least if market share is any gauge, and it is. (Google, incidentally, got where it is without advertising itself, though rumor has it that it may begin soon.)

After all this time, one of the most famous things about is still that it used to be Ask Jeeves. Is it utterly insane to broach the idea of it returning to the old familiar moniker? Probably, but Ask marketing has been so random that it wouldn’t be that huge a leap. And if Volkswagen can bring back the Rabbit nameplate after a couple of decades, convincing Jeeves to come out of retirement would not be without precedent…


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. tfhackett Says:

    a-a-a-a-and they already have a balloon.

  2. bims Says:

    .) This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

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