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Printing Industry Fights Back After Google Attack Ad

You can blame a lot on a pretty picture, especially if that picture is worth a thousand words. With the puck about to drop on a shortened NHL hockey season, the gloves already have come off in another icy standoff between newer vs. more established communications media. Now that the pixel and paper dust has settled we have a clearer perspective on what happened in early January, when the latest Google fight broke out.

The online search behemoth may have been the unintentional instigator, but many on the ink-on-paper side responded childishly at first, seemingly proclaiming, “My technology is greener than your technology. Na na na na nah!” Quietly, the “Googlites” observed these knee-jerk reactions from behind the glass, presumably laughing at the retaliators, but not taking the bait.

“Tit-for-tat retorts are silly,” said Don Carli, senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication. “It’s all a lot of posturing.” Some offended bloggers and insulted print twits on Twitter countered with a call to “Go Google-less” and use less Google in 2013. Carli called that idea “wrong-headed” because, like printing (and paper), Google, Bing, and Yahoo keyword searches are not going away. There is no disputing that online resources, available immediately at our fingertips, have made research virtually painless for millions of users, students included, not to mention thousands of professional reporters. (Sure, I’ll go on the record: I love Google. It made weaving this story so much easier!)

PIA president/CEO Michael Makin added: “A lot of people ask, ‘What’s the big deal?’” The big deal is that the US print industry, which the Printing Industry of America represents, has some “one million employees counting on paychecks every week,” said Makin, who vowed to continue to face-off on behalf of his members. Carli went on to say that print and paper are important components of North America’s GDP (gross domestic product), contributing trillions of dollars to the economy. An excerpt from Makin’s January 8 letter, sent to Google CEO Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, reads:

“While we appreciate that it is in your best and self-interest to operate in a digital world, inferring that going digital is better for the environment is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible,” Makin wrote. “The amount of energy that is used by servers and individual devices far exceeds that used in the production of printed goods, and the amount of energy required for electronic devices is increasing.” (Read the gist of the full letter at

The “Go Paperless in 2013” campaign is not the first passive-aggressive bullying of the print medium, and it surely won’t be the last. Remember Toshiba’s thwarted “National No-Print Day” in 2012? It’s not even Google’s first attack. Last August, the firm placed print ads in Canadian newspapers that questioned the very power of newspaper ads. The irony gets even better: Google’s Creative Lab unit won a 2012 contest encouraging creativity in print advertising; the grand prize is $1 million worth of full-page ad space in USA Today. Five years ago, it was bringing in print advertisers via Google Print Ads, a complement to its AdWords program, which cooperated with more than 250 US newspapers. However, Google pulled the print plug in 2009, saying the program did not generate the level of impact for which it had hoped.

My takeaway from this latest brouhaha is a basic graphics principle: Pictures (and words) cannot be chosen carelessly, whether for use in print or online. That’s why I point the finger for this whole misunderstanding at an innocent or misguided web designer/copywriter. Call her or him a scapegoat, if you must, but somebody has to take the fall before Twitter’s tweetdom explodes. Apparently, people have a lot to say on this topic. In our Social Media Age, Twitter has gone all atwitter with commentaries and links in 140 characters or less. The tweets, both pros and cons, started on Jan. 9—there were more than 450 of them in the first week—and they haven’t stopped, at an average clip of 60+ per day. (Search hash tag #Paperless2013 for the latest.) A weekly #PrintChat tweet up devoted a full hour to the subject on January 16.

Combating Propaganda

Employed in past attacks on paper and printing, propaganda is a form of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Print/paper proponent Two Sides was another first responder on Jan. 8, carefully crafting an open letter, to Google’s Schmidt (, which subsequently was emailed to interested parties. Choose Print, an initiative of local PIA affiliate PIASC in Southern California, issued a press release entitled “Saving time. Saving money. Saving trees?”

Not surprisingly, Google executives declined to be interviewed for this article. But whoever approved the stately tree image with its flourishing green leafage should probably have opted for a different stock photo. “Thanks for reaching out; however, we don't have any comment for this story,” Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg, Google senior associate of Global Communications and Public Affairs, wrote via email. Nonetheless, I give her and her Paperless Coalition partners the benefit of the doubt. Call me naïve, but I don’t believe the imagery and word choice on their ring-in-the-new-year landing page was intended to be misleading. But mislead it does, premeditated or not.

I’ve been writing about the unrealized potential of the paperless office for more than two decades. (Read my 2010 ode to print here: Admittedly, its electronic/digital/technologic reality is closer now than ever before. Three-year-old firm took a more objective, factual approach in a New Year’s Day blog: “It’s 2013 and our society still uses a ton of paper,” CEO and co-founder Joseph Walla wrote plainly in straight text format.

There were no pretty pictures of green trees in the background of this digital visionary’s message. His firm has partnered with Google. “In honor of our launch, get 50 free fax pages / month & unlimited e-signatures,” offers a Google Drive online promo for its new cloud storage solution. HP is in the cloud computing business, too, but its marketing is more tactful because the firm is heavily invested in print as well.

Disrespect and Embroilment

With the graphic designer on the chopping block, I suppose the writer’s head should roll, too. “Save money” is alright and so is “Save time.” But “Save trees.” Ouch! That’s the gut punch that has the paper and printing industries reeling in a tizzy: 1) Because it is simply not true, and 2) Such a statement infers that e-communication is environmentally sustainable, which also is false.

Like me, Gerry Bonetto does not think Google was being malicious in its marketing.“We understand that marketing is a component of all media, but the tree angle is an hellacious argument,” complained Bonetto, PhD and VP of government affairs at the Printing Industries of California, who can spout environmental statistics with the best of them. The bottom line, he said, is that “trees are a sustainable commodity: a crop” that is essentially farmed.

To help educate the general public, PIA’s Southern California affiliate launched the “Choose Print” campaign in January 2011. It is designed, in part, to reinforce the fact that print on paper is recyclable, renewable, and ultimately sustainable. PIASC is the largest local graphic arts trade association in the nation, serving the interests of more than 1,100 member companies. Apparently, most employees at Google headquarters to the north in Mountain View, CA, have not yet seen the website. “We print and mail about 36,000 postcards a month,” noted Bonetto, “and every third one has an environmental message.”

Google’s silence speaks volumes. Those people still involved in printing no longer are in denial about the beloved medium’s evolution with regard to technology. “In North America, the secular decline in print and paper use is a fact,” Carli observed. It’s no secret that last year, for the first time, Google ad revenue surpassed that of US print media. In the first six months of 2012, the 15-year-young “upstart” raked in $20.8 billion while newspapers and magazines generated $19.2 billion from print advertising. The online heavyweight may not be actively fighting back, but it is winning. “Our stance is that digital is not bad, either,” noted Bonetto of PIAC, which encourages its members to use both mediums.

When the topic turns to environmental sustainability, however, all any of us asks for is truthfulness, not a black eye based on lies and consumer perception—those over-used, sentimental images of catalog-laden landfills and barren forests. One of the most insightful summaries of the situation comes from Charles Prescott, executive director of nonprofit trade association GADA, the Global Address Data Association. “If you don’t know that more of the United States and Europe are now covered with forest than they were 100 years ago, then you should read this letter [from Two Sides],” Prescott blogged. “Is using … digital tools without environmental impact?” he asked rhetorically.

“Quick—how long could you run a 60-watt light bulb with the energy Google uses to help you do 100 searches? Is it a) 30 seconds; b) 2 minutes; c) 20 minutes? And how many people do you know who, in the course of a week, would do 100 searches? So let’s say 10 people. Well, your searches alone would run the light bulb for 20 minutes. You and your friends would light that bulb for … 3 hours and 40 minutes,” Prescott tallied. “That energy has to come from somewhere: perhaps a pile of coal or a nuclear generating facility.

“Now, there’s nothing bad about that energy use,” he continued. “The point is that the energy use is not free in terms of environmental impact. And the second point is that this does not suggest doing the same task with paper is environmentally dangerous.”

PIA’s Makin agreed that Google and its paperless partners misled, whether intentionally or not. “Sure, they could have used a different image, perhaps a computer terminal or a bunch of plugs,” Makin jested. “But the inference that ‘e’ is greener than paper is clear. And sending that kind of message is hypocritical,” he added, citing statistics that 67 percent of online purchases are driven by offline media. “Most of these companies, including Toshiba, use [printed] direct mail as part of their marketing strategies.” MyPrintResource readers will recall that, in mid-2012, Toshiba scratched its plans to hold a “National No-Print Day” in October after protests and a rash of blogs generated negative publicity. The event website has since gone dark.

Bill Melo, Toshiba USA’s senior VP of marketing, “was quite ‘concerned’ with how the campaign had been received by the commercial printing industry and stressed it was never the intent of his company to disenfranchise or insult our industry,” Makin recalled. “He explained that the campaign was always directed at the office marketplace where he opined there was needless waste.”

The same can be said of the Paperless Coalition members, many of whom target their products and services to office and home/office audiences. Take Manilla, LLC, for example, which touts an account manager for “bills, rewards, and subscriptions in one secure place online.” After reviewing its website, “I don’t think they have any ulterior motives,” Bonetto said.

Awash in Not-So-Green Claims

This month, Makin and PIA went on to slap Google’s proverbial wrist. “In addition, the campaign seems to be clearly in conflict with the recently revised Federal Trade Commission’s ‘Green Guides’ that define appropriate environmental marketing and claims,” the letter accused.

That reprimand may sting, said Carli from the Institute for Sustainable Communication, but no more than a petty fine for a cheap-shot hit by a millionaire pro hockey player. “Greenwashing” flies in the face of what the FTC is trying to enforce, but such claims can be difficult to prove and require a $5,000 fee to get the puck sliding with the Council of Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division (

“The ‘Green Guides’ were updated last October because consumers have been increasingly exposed to ‘green’ claims that are unsubstantiated, hyperbolic, or misleading,” Carli explained. “But the ‘Green Guides’ are not the law,” he stressed. “The burden of proof is high. There needs to be economic damage. In other words, a company has to have been financially harmed by such false claims.” (Carli also noted that Underwriters Laboratories will soon reissue its updated Sins of Greenwashing website.)

PIAC’s Bonetto thinks there is merit in filing an official BBB challenge, and he’s not alone. But no single industry association or other consortium of printing firms has come forward to take the lead. “We have a timid group of people,” one frustrated industry executive told me under the condition of anonymity. “No one wants to take bold action.” But bold action is needed to make a statement.

Some believe the industry’s paralysis is due to fear. The BBB process, which can take up to 60 days, is self-regulating and fairly non-confrontational, Carli explained. However, if the FTC were to rule against the printing industry, the findings would go public—making matters worse by further tarnishing print’s already tainted reputation. So the prevalent attitude among is to “leave well enough alone.”

Defenders of Print?

Perhaps cost is the determining factor for non-action. The $5,000 fee is a drop in the ink bucket, but it’s only the start. Carli thinks what the print industry may need to better support its cause is to commission a double-blind consumer perception study. The vast majority of people do not need to be misled by false green marketing claims. “Twenty to 30 percent of the population is sufficient,” he said.

Such a study could take four to six weeks to conduct and cost in the neighborhood of $100,000. Some would consider that sum a nominal investment, especially since the findings could be used repeatedly in BBB advertising/marketing challenges. Raising $100K among the nation’s printers would not be a difficult endeavor. Again, someone has to pick up the print torch, but whom?

Print Media Center blogger Deborah Corn says we should keep applying pressure ( Bonetto agrees, telling me he doesn’t mind the social media debate. He is more concerned about the rebuttals dying down, the dialog stopping, and people forgetting. “What about tomorrow, next week, next month?” he asked. This stirring of the print pot “happened last year [with Toshiba] and it will, inevitably, happen again.”

Editor’s note: As of mid-January, the leafy image and tree-hugger tagline at the “Go Paperless in 2013” website had not been revised or altered.

A month before this latest multimedia tiff, Joann Whitcher wrote a myth-busting piece on paper and the environment:

Targeting the Office

“Google Drive is part of the Paperless Coalition, a group of organizations and products that help you live completely in a paper-free world,” proclaims its landing page. “Drive makes it easy to keep all your stuff in the cloud and access it anywhere—so you don’t have to carry around paper copies wherever you go. And if you use paper to fax documents, print receipts, track expense reports, or jot notes, the Paperless Coalition has apps to help with that, too.”

While Google and its Google Drive cloud storage business may be big, recognizable names, they are not the only companies and products involved in The website lists email marketer Constant Contact, Intero Real Estate Services, and online payment provider Stripe as sponsors. and e-signature sister company HelloSign lead the Paperless Coalition, whose other member are:

Expensify expense reports, Fujitsu ScanSnap portable scanners, Account/bill organizer Manilla, Xero accounting software.

Playing Hardball in Europe

A Euro-battle is still brewing. Four years ago, Rupert Murdoch called Google and other search engines “content kleptomaniacs.” The recent end of a 19-month FTC investigation concluded that Google had not broken any antitrust law in the US, but the European Commission may yet take a different stance.

Frustrated by their inability to make more of their own money from the Internet, some newspaper and magazine publishers across the pond want to turn the tables on Google. Because they provide the material on which the Web giant is generating revenue, they contend that Google should pay them for links instead of the other way around. The New York Times has reported that a bill working its way through the German Parliament would enable publishers to collect a royalty fee from Google and other search engines and news “aggregators” when they display excerpts from news articles alongside links to newspaper and magazine websites. France and Italy are considering similar legislation.

But Google, like the 500-pound gorilla at the bargaining table, is standing its ground, scoffing at the parasite metaphors and insisting it’s a two-way street. The Economist added, “Google says it directs four billion clicks to news websites every month; perhaps as much as three-quarters of Google News users go on to read the full article. And newspapers can add a tag to their pages so that they do not appear in Google News.”

NYT wrote, “Already facing possible sanctions from European antitrust and privacy regulators, Google says that having to pay for links could threaten its ‘very existence.’ And it warned that the demand for money could backfire. If Google had to pay up, it ‘would consequently be forced to stop indexing the French sites,’ Google wrote in a ‘position paper’ it sent to the French government. Because 30 percent to 40 percent of the traffic on French news sites comes from Google’s links, the company’s threat is not an idle one.”