Google Says Home's Plug for Disney Was ‘Timely Content,’ Not Ad

  • Disney mention shows way to make money from AI-powered devices
  • Google says it ’could have done better’ with latest experiment

Google, the world’s biggest digital advertising company, may have just figured out how to make money from its voice-based computing future. Just don’t call it an ad.

On Thursday, Bryson Meunier, an online search executive at digital ticket seller Vivid Seats LLC, tweeted a video of his Google Home internet-connected speaker playing a Walt Disney Co. promotion for the new "Beauty and the Beast" movie. 

Meunier says "Okay, Google, what’s my day like?" The AI-powered software talks about the weather and traffic, then says: "By the way, Disney’s live action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ opens today," followed by music and additional commentary on the movie.

It’s a big moment in the history of computing -- and something Wall Street has been bugging Google parent Alphabet Inc. about lately. Google became one of the world’s most valuable companies by showing relevant text-based ads after people type text-based queries into PCs. But this ad model is ever changing as technology advances.

When mobile phones first took off, Google created new ads suited to smaller screens. Now, it sees a future in which physical computers fade away and we speak to AI-powered software that gives us the right information at the right time. The Google Assistant, lurking inside the Google Home gadget, is an early version of this, but it presents the company with an even greater challenge without a screen for text ads.

Hence the excitement on Thursday about the Disney movie promo. If Google’s Assistant is already broadcasting ads through this new medium, a new source of profit may begin flowing. That could help it keep up with Amazon.com Inc., which is already accepting potentially profitable online orders through its Echo speakers, powered by its Alexa assistant.

Not so fast, according to (human) Google representatives.

After Business Insider asked Google about the episode, a spokesperson said it wasn’t an ad, adding: "The beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales."

Only a human could have come up with that.

Fail as Old as Time

When Bloomberg News asked about it, a Google spokeswoman said it wasn’t intended to be an ad, and provided a slightly different explanation.

"What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content," she wrote in an email. "We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”

So if Disney didn’t pay for the movie mention by the Google Assistant, is this the equivalent of an organic search result in Google’s new voice-based computing world? Either way, the Disney ad -- or promotion, or experience, or experiment -- has been pulled.

Disney didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

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