Bringing negative campaigning to the corporate world

Regular readers will know that I love negative campaigning, particularly from the US and Australia. Anyone can successfully run positive campaigns, but it takes a special type of operator, with a pit of darkness, to campaign negatively.

We all know how effective it is in politics so it should be no surprise that negative campaigning is now entering business. Microsoft has hired negative campaigning specialist Mark Penn to assist in going after Google.

Since Mr. Penn was put in charge of ?strategic and special projects? at Microsoft in August, much of his job has involved efforts to trip up Google, which Microsoft has failed to dislodge from its perch atop the lucrative Internet search market.

Drawing on his background in polling, data crunching and campaigning, Mr. Penn created a holiday?commercial?that has been running during Monday Night Football and other shows, in which Microsoft criticizes Google for polluting the quality of its shopping search results with advertisements. ?Don?t get scroogled,? it warns. His other projects include a blind taste test, Coke-versus-Pepsi style, of search results from Google and Microsoft?s Bing.

The campaigns by Mr. Penn, 58, a longtime political operative known for his brusque personality and scorched-earth tactics, are part of a broader effort at Microsoft to give its marketing the nimbleness of a political campaign, where a candidate can turn an opponent?s gaffe into a damaging commercial within hours. They are also a sign of the company?s mounting frustration with Google after losing billions of dollars a year on its search efforts, while losing ground to Google in the browser and smartphones markets and other areas.

Microsoft has long attacked Google from the shadows, whispering to regulators, journalists and anyone else who would listen that Google was a privacy-violating, anticompetitive bully. The fruits of its recent work in this area could come next week, when the Federal Trade Commission is expected to announce the results of its antitrust investigation of Google, a case that echoes Microsoft?s own antitrust suit in the 1990s. A similar investigation by the European Union is also wrapping up. A bad outcome for Google in either one would be a victory for Microsoft.

But Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., has realized that it cannot rely only on regulators to scrutinize Google ? which is where Mr. Penn comes in. He is increasing the urgency of Microsoft?s efforts and focusing on their more public side.