Topic: Business & Commercial

Google Ethics 2: April Fool!

April 1 is the one day of the year when it is OK to be unethical, at least within reason. The date stands as a warning to all that chicanery, deception and put-ons are lurking, and as long as the deception is harmless and funny, it is no more unethical than pretending to be someone else on Halloween, or telling your child that Santa comes down the chimney.

Some corporations can even get away with a little dishonesty on April Fool’s Day, if the circumstances are just right. Years ago, Time, Inc.’s Sports Illustrated devoted much of its April 1 issue to a worshipful profile of minor league pitching star Sidd (short for “Siddhartha”) Finch, whose study of Eastern philosophy had endowed him with the ability to throw a baseball a stunning 120 miles an hour. S.I. included numerous hints (besides the inherent outrageousness of the story) to allow alert readers to pick up on the magazine’s April Fool’s prank, but many were fooled nonetheless. Nobody seemed to mind: the combination of the date, the magazine’s recreational subject matter and its clever execution of the hoax rendered the exercise immune from serious criticism.

A similar gag in the pages of Time, a “serious” publication, would not have fared so well among media critics and the public, however. In general, corporations can’t afford to play games with their credibility, and in the wake of Enron, the law isn’t likely to look kindly on intentional corporate deceptions no matter how funny they are.

Google, it seems, does not grasp this distinction.

The whimsical, Chinese Communist-collaborating company has pulled April Fool’s Day tricks before, but it outdid itself this year with its fake launch of a fictional new Google service, “Google Romance.” First a press release announced the launch, complete with text to tip off anyone not fooled by Sidd Finch that Google Romance was equally facetious:

“Google Romance users who find one another via Soulmate Search™ may then select the Contextual Dating option, which offers an all-expenses-paid romantic evening in exchange for viewing contextually relevant advertising throughout the course of the users’ date (learn more).

“Our internal projections say Contextual Dating is going to be unbelievably huge, just a total cash cow,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt in prepared remarks placed into the notes section of an executive PowerPoint presentation and intended solely for internal use but promptly leaked onto the web and then roundly mocked on Digg and Slashdot. The product, a beta release currently residing on Google Labs, can be experimented with at”

The malarkey got thicker once you clicked on the links:

“Pin All Your Romantic Hopes on Google!”

“With Google Romance, you can:

  • Upload your profile – tell the world who you are, or, more to the point, who you’d like to think you are, or, even more to the point, who you want others to think you are.

  • Search for love in all (or at least a statistically significant majority of) the right places with Soulmate Search, our eerily effective psychographic matchmaking software.

  • Endure, via our Contextual Dating option, thematically appropriate multimedia advertising throughout the entirety of your free date.”

Once a reader reached “Google Romance,” a series of tongue-in-cheek, step-by-step graphics illustrated the “contextual dating” process, such as this one:

Followed by this comment:

“Your potentially life-altering search results are produced solely by computer algorithm, without human intervention of any kind.”

“Note: depending on your personality, you may or may not find this reassuring.”  

It is, in fact, pretty funny. But as some of you may have noticed from the laughter evoked by Pauly Shore, the Three Stooges, and the Family Circus, not all Americans were blessed with a sense of humor. Many believed that Google Romance was real, especially those who heard about it second and third hand, and those who do not habitually go through the first week of April suspecting that everyone is trying to fool them. If someone thought Google Romance was a good idea, he may have decided to buy Google stock. If a lot of people thought this way, Google’s value might have climbed a bit…based on a lie. (Note: a funny lie is still a lie. So is a profitable lie.)

The SEC frowns on this sort of thing, and should. Imagine Pfizer coming out with a funny fake press release announcing that it had developed a cure for obesity. Or a smart pill. Or, Google-style, a romance pill. That might inflate the stock price a might, don’t you think? Surely these announcements might raise the hopes of people yearning for just such magic drugs. Is “it was all a joke!” a sufficient justification for a corporate deception? Google thinks so; here’s its own coda to its “Google Romance” hoax:

Romance Not Found

The requested URL was not found on this server. This means that you either:

1. Fell for our April Fool’s joke, in which case ha ha, wasn’t that amusing and harmless and mostly in good taste and not all psychologically damaging under various and sundry aspects of contemporary tort law, please don’t sue us; or

2. Are genuinely enjoying, or least momentarily tolerating, our April Fool’s joke and wanted to surf your way into its every last nook and cranny, in which case

1. …ha ha, wasn’t that amusing and harmless and mostly in good taste and not all psychologically damaging under various and sundry aspects of contemporary tort law, please don’t sue us; and/or

2. you might want to take a trip down our April Fool’s memory lane, here or here or here or here. Enjoy.

At the risk of being an ethical curmudgeon, the Ethics Scoreboard is stifling its laughter. Product launches, even silly ones, have to be off the table when it comes to for-profit hijinks, and it probably would be a good idea for the private sector to swear off April Fool’s jokes entirely for the foreseeable future…and while we’re on the topic, politicians, judges and doctors should take the pledge too. (“We’ve captured Osama Bin Laden! April Fool!!” “I’m sentencing you to death. April Fool!!” ” Your cancer has gone into complete remission. April Fool!!”) Our trust in these people is tenuous enough as it is, and that’s no laughing matter. Google isn’t a corporate kid any more; it’s a major economic force in the information sector, and has an obligation to behave accordingly.

Here’s a compromise: the Scoreboard will tolerate another April Fool’s Day joke from Google on the condition that it tries it out on its Red Chinese business partners first. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like it’s likely to happen.

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