Bing helps us search for the meaning in our tech choices

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It’s not easy to break into a market that is dominated by a player whose name is literally synonymous with an entire product category. In a world that uses “Googling” to refer to the very act of searching for something online, it’s a wonder that anyone is brave enough to launch a new search engine.

But that’s exactly what Microsoft did in 2009 with the launch of Bing. Microsoft’s answer to Google —  and its bid for billions in dollars in online search advertising — hinged on getting people to think that there was an alternative to Google for, well, googling.

How do you get people to imagine themselves binging instead of googling? Microsoft’s strategy apparently hinged on tying our fantasy lives to its new product. (And as of today, on tying it to the Blackberry.) If you watch TV, you might have noticed how that strategy began to remake our landscape, beginning about eighteen months ago.

Suddenly late night talk shows had an urge to talk about online search. Fictional computer geeks with conspicuously de-branded laptops suddenly became Microsoft enthusiasts. Law enforcement officers from Hawaii to Los Angeles threw over their intelligence databases in exchange for the opportunity to “Bing it!”.

This sudden, intense interest in Internet searching was annoying enough. If I want to watch someone surf the web, I can just sit on the sofa and look at my husband. (Hey, that sounds kinda nice!)

But the real problem came not from software, but from hardware. After all, Microsoft was hardly going to pay for televised Bing seaches by a character using an iPhone. So goodbye, Apple hardware: welcome to a new, fictional world in which people only use Microsoft-enabled phones and computers.

In my own TV watching, the incongruity of that shift was most apparent on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. What, you seriously thought I was going to make it through 40 years of Internet history without talking about the TV show that best captures today’s wired lifestyle? That’s right, Gossip Girl.

Bing got serious about Gossip Girl over the course of spring 2010. Suddenly, Gossip Girl characters were not only going online to “bing” their latest queries, but undertaking all of this binging on a series of nondescript PC laptops. What?!!?

Look, I’m willing to strain the bounds of credulity with my Gossip Girl watching. You’re giving your no-good, cheating boyfriend another chance: why not? You’re a teenager who launches your own fashion line? Go for it. You have transcended your drug habit to become a saintly fashionista? Good for you.

But a rich, styling young New Yorker with a Windows machine? Please!

Overnight, Gossip Girl’s producers asked us to accept a universe in which a girl would wear Prada but use Acer. This, despite the fact that Apple’s market share is strongest among “younger, more highly educates, and higher-income households” and that the iPhone’s edge over other smartphone platforms gets stronger in high-income demographics. And sure enough, before  the Bing-a-thon began, Gossip Girl’s characters used Macs, first subtly, then with logos blazing.

There’s a lesson in the incongruity of Gossip Girl’s Windows/Bing switch over, which was both widely noted and widely criticized. As with any aggressive product placement campaign, people resent the intrusion of advertising into their fictional narratives: drop some identifiable products into the frame if you most, but don’t make them plot points.

But at least in my case, the reaction to Gossip Girl’s Microsoft deal goes way beyond my usual aversion to product placement. What really bugged me is that the placement felt out-of-character. Because in today’s world, our technology use is very much a part of our character.

Technology choice reflects an wide mix of demographic factors: income, age, gender, education and even race. And of course, it reflects individual personalities. Just like casting, costumes and dialogue help us locate a fictional character and understand what makes him or her tick, so does a character’s choice of hardware.

If a product placement campaign like Bing’s can shock us with its incongruity, it represents more than a marketing fail on the part of Microsoft. It reflects the extent to which we’ve integrated technology into our own identities, into the way we locate ourselves and others in the world — even when that world is fictional.

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