Why Google is the Freddy Krueger of Marketing

During Halloween week, a lot of old horror movies came across my screen. Halloween (of course). Friday the 13th. Dawn of the Dead. But it occurred to me that perhaps the scariest — and certainly the most influential — horror movie of the ‘80s had to be A Nightmare on Elm Street.

(Let the arguments begin.)

Now, before you tell me why I’m wrong, allow me to make my case:

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, most horror movies featured a villain who killed in a particular location. To save yourself from Jason Voorhees, you had to flee Camp Crystal Lake. To save yourself from Michael Myers, you had to get out of Haddonfield. Et cetera. But Freddy Krueger transcended location. Freddy got to you in your sleep. If Freddy decided he wanted to kill you, you were toast.

This was not only terrifying, but, as mentioned, highly influential.

In the ‘90s, Hollywood started investing in high-brow horror, which they categorized as “psychological thrillers.” Films like The Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear and Seven, featured big-name stars and directors. They also featured villains who could seemingly get to their victims wherever and whenever they liked. Buffalo Bill, Max Cady and John Doe didn’t have supernatural powers like Freddy Krueger; but if they decided they wanted you dead, there’s nothing you — nor the police, nor the FBI, nor the courts, etc. — could do to stop them.

What does any of this have to do with marketing? Exactly this:

Sometimes a new thing is introduced into the culture that shifts things in profound ways that we don’t fully appreciate until later. A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t just a scary movie; it was transformative. It changed the trajectory, intent, style, budgets, casts, crews and execution of scary movies for a decade. (Box office receipts, too.)

Google did the same thing for marketing.

Now, it goes without saying that Google is the most impactful thing to happen to marketing in the last 20 years. (And it didn’t even come from marketers!) But the point here isn’t that search was a game-changing marketing tool or medium. It’s that the advent of search represented a transformative cultural shift in how consumers engage with brands.


Before Google, the great brands of the day included the likes of Nike, Disney and Apple. What do these brands have in common? They all promise a better version of you (once you buy the products). Nike offers empowerment through athletics. Disney offers a magical experience with your family. Apple offers a unique way to unlock your creativity.

Google doesn’t offer any of that. Instead, it provides an intuitive gateway to the Internet. A simple open box inviting you to ask any question you could have. Essentially, it handed early Internet users a desperately needed navigation system and steering wheel all in one.

Now, think about the great brands of the 21st century that followed — Fortune 50 companies like Amazon and Facebook (in addition to Alphabet/Google). None of them offer a better version of you. They offer, instead, very specific and useful things that regular-you wants or needs.

Amazon gives you almost any product you could want, at the lowest price, delivered to your door in a day. Facebook gives you the dopamine rush of “friends” who respond positively to any pic, joke, story or opinion you feel like sharing.

These brands deliver on very real, very central human needs. Curiosity. Desire. Attention. They are emotional brands — just like Nike, Disney and Apple — but they satiate emotional needs in immediate and pragmatic ways, rather than distant and aspirational ones. And that makes all the difference.

Back to Google for a moment:

  • More than 50% of users can’t differentiate between an ad and an organic result on Google. (source)
  • Internet users, broadly, are four times more likely to click on a paid search ad on Google (63%) than on any other search engine. (source)
  • And, a paid ad on the first position on the first page of Google has a CTR of 7.11%. (source)

These stats indicate why paid search has been such a force in marketing. The ROI is literally double; businesses make an average of $2 in revenue for every $1 they spend on Google Ads. (source) Marketers have been beating the dead horse of “all marketing is digital marketing” for a decade now. Search is the main reason (with social closing the gap in second place).

It happened because once human beings got to be active participants in media consumption, they didn’t want to go back. They no longer want to be spoon-fed stories and messages, even well-targeted ones. They want to take the wheel and drive themselves.

Think of how media shifted in the wake of Google. Before that, consumers passively watched TV, listened to radio, flipped through magazines. Media creators and advertisers spoke unilaterally to their audiences. But after Google …

First, you soon saw the advent of blogs (users creating). Next came YouTube (users creating, searching and playing video). Next came Facebook (users creating and sharing to smaller, known audiences). Then mobile blew things in nine different directions. Then on-demand TV all but destroyed scheduled programming. And on and on. We’re talking about example after example, supported by tool upon tool, of audiences taking control of their media experiences.

What does this mean for marketers? That we don’t drive anymore; the audiences do. Assume they’re in charge, because they are.

Consider their wants and needs first. Then give yourself — and your brand — the role of how to deliver on those needs as completely, quickly and profoundly as possible.

You can deny this transformative change if you want. But if you do — just like denying Freddy’s power — you’ll do so at your own peril. (Bwahh-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

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