05/20/2010 12:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Google Deserves More Cynicism

As someone who teaches corporate law, I'm always surprised by how much people seem to trust corporate marketing.

Take a new brand-recognition drive by Google. They've drafted 20,000 schools to participate in a contest in which kids draw their own versions of the Google logo. The contest required that all submissions go through K-12 teachers, and it appears that thousands of teachers have cooperated over the last few years, assigning the contest to their students.

The teachers' decisions are understandable. For many, I imagine the contest just looked like an opportunity to motivate students or at least to give focus to an art assignment. As a classroom teacher myself, I understand at least some of the challenges that K-12 teachers face, even if my own students are somewhat calmer and less likely to get into fights in the restrooms.

Think for a moment, however, about how cynically manipulative Google's decisions to set up this contest must have been. On a page describing the contest, Google rhetorically asks: "Why is Google doing this competition?" (Companies, unlike people, can get away with talking about themselves in the third person.) They answer: "We are delighted to encourage and celebrate the creativity of young people, and are excited to see the range of creative doodles that are submitted." Maybe whoever wrote that answer genuinely delights in youthful creativity, but Google's purposes are surely more mercenary. If anything delights or excites Google as a company, it's not creative doodles but an opportunity to increase awareness of its brand -- especially, in this case, by using authority figures like teachers to drive the point home.

Google, like all public companies, is mostly amoral. Its trade is not hope or idealism; it's trade. Everything it says to convince people otherwise is expertly crafted marketing to promote profit. Google executives would like you to think they're more moral, more creative, more idealistic, and more forward-thinking than the executives at all other companies, but if you believe that, it just means their marketing has succeeded. In all likelihood, Google executives are just about as moral and idealistic as their counterparts at their competitors. If they're even slightly more creative or forward-thinking, which is doubtful overall, it's presumably because Google has invested in developing recruitment and compensation policies that suit its business purposes well, like heated toilet seats and other perks that its employees seem to love.

Imagine how you'd feel if instead of drawing "Google" doodles, 20,000 schools were asked (by, say, a political strategist) to participate in a contest to draw doodles of the Bush (or Obama) campaign logos. Should your reaction be different just because Google's goal is to make money rather than elect people? Google is not here to serve society's unambiguous interests. It's on its own side, and schools shouldn't let it take advantage of them.

I'm not saying that Google is evil. When I question whether their goal is to promote creativity in children, I'm not suggesting their insidious purpose is really to squelch creativity in children. I'm instead pointing out that Google isn't a beacon of hope; at most, they're a beacon of search engines and a variety of similar products, which they entirely appropriately aim to market to people in order to generate advertising revenue. That's business, which is great. But it's not idealism or altruism, and it's probably not something that children should be told to doodle about, except perhaps in a class that teaches them about logos and the power of public relations. As British comedian David Mitchell has put it, "I'm arguing for cynicism. We should at least try to withhold our emotions from the corporations we trade with."

In any event, not particularly liking manipulative marketing, my personal response is simply to rewrite in my head all messages I get from Google. I hear "Don't Be Evil" and think "Be Basically Morally Neutral While Making Money." I read "We are delighted to encourage and celebrate the creativity of young people" and think "We would very much like to get children and their teachers to recognize our logo and associate us with positive change in the world; this moderately increases the chances that we'll still be around, relevant, and profitable in thirty years." I see their elaborate April Fools jokes, smile almost imperceptibly at their minimal humor, and think "Google wants technologically aware people like me to think they are funny and pleasant." I'd love to see more lesson plans that teach children to be similarly skeptical of marketing.