Why Google’s New #DearLocal Campaign Misses the Mark
Anthony Joshua cruising around North London isn’t going to convince me that Google is a friend to the local economy
2020 for local businesses has, unsurprisingly, been the socio-economic equivalent of catching the coronavirus.
Their oxygen supply — the high street punter — has been severely restricted. The hastily implemented, often unclear trading restrictions imposed on them in the name of ‘stopping the spread’ could be considered a dereliction of care, however justified they may be.
For many, the case could be lethal; London’s thoroughfares are blighted with gutted retail space and protruding For Let signs — these are the first victims.
Wandering the High Street can be a pretty depressing experience these days. In the face of this, there’s a concerted effort forming across social channels to try and get people caring for the community through patronage of their local cornerstone businesses.
The fact that people seem to conflate local with independent isn’t a disparity I want to wade into, but the cultural stock appears to be the same; Jeff Bezos isn’t the bloke from two doors down who works at the hole-in-the-wall cafe outside the tube station, the one who smiles whilst handing you your daily oat-milk flat white (which you didn’t have to order, he just knows) — so why are you buying coffee beans off Amazon? You might be able to One-Click Buy to your heart’s content whilst sitting in your pyjamas, living your WFH life — but the rise of Zoom meetings means coffee guy might not be able to pay his mortgage this month.
We’re all guilty of bowing to the seamless ease of globalized capitalism i.e. Amazon, but our collective shame means that this kind of movement is one I’m really happy to get behind.
Then along comes Google with their new #DearLocal campaign. Featuring celebrity heavyweight Anthony Joshua repping his North London stomping ground of Golders Green, and Sheridan Smith projecting the small-town values of Epworth, Lincolnshire — these ads aim to promote Google Reviews as a communal tool by tying them to the two poles of UK domestic culture; the metropolitan, urbanized south and the traditionalist, rural north.
The content of these adverts isn’t particularly egregious. Google are undoubtedly attempting to cash in on the wave of support being drummed up for local businesses, but they’re hitting the right notes in doing so.
Rather, what rubs the wrong way is Google’s flagrant attempt to insert themselves — a US corporate Tech Giant — into what is fundamentally a small scale and highly personalised relationship. In doing so, I think they’re acting both dishonestly and with tonal deafness. They’re trying to strong-arm the Google brand into something that holds a lot of historic cultural value, and they’re dressing it up as being dutiful servants to the community — all during a very trying time for businesses that, unlike Google, don’t generate billions in annual profit.
Before I go any further, I think it’s time to get this out of the way — I’m a big fan of Google Reviews. They are, bar-none, the barometer I turn to when deciding which eateries, drinking holes and barbershops are for me. But, in all honesty, that’s part of the problem.
I’m part of the problem.
In a lot of ways, I’m a quintessential millennial. I value aesthetics and ambience on a higher pedestal than traditionalists perhaps would. I’ve also lived in, at the time of writing, five different cities and I’m about to add a sixth when I move to Boston in January. My beloved hometown of Teddington aside — I can’t profess to having truly embedded in any of the communities which I’ve been so lucky to be a part of.
I hold a lot of love for them all, but I was a transient member.
I relied heavily on Google Reviews in each of these places. I’ve also written my own fair share of them; herein lies the issue. Google Reviews are a tool of the digital native, the experience chaser, the passerby; they do not adequately reflect the necessary emotional legwork, nor prioritize the right characteristics, to form an appropriate snapshot of the value a business community represents to those who call a place home.
Businesses that have stood for generations as servants to local residents, but who don’t necessarily meet western-driven experience standards, will be chastised via these digital systems for not catering to a customer profile that they were never intended for to begin with. The case for modernisation is a compelling one in the cut-throat world of business, but sacrificing rustic charm to meet these demands is the type of cultural erosion that occurs en masse due to the soft-power influence of Big Tech.
The essence of local is day-to-day; it’s building a rapport with businesses that you stumble across moving through your daily life. Google Reviews will often send you to out-of-the-way areas, chasing five-stars — this is, rather ironically, an unnatural experience that contradicts the authenticity-obsessed values purported by clients who won’t frequent a bar unless it’s a house music blaring, fifteen pound cocktail-serving vibe with some sort of edgy neon sign to pose in front of for Instagram.
More often than not, these review systems will also prioritise the English language. One of the places I lived was Malaga — a more traditionalist area of Spain, one less internationalized when compared to the hub cities of Madrid or Barcelona. As such, English speaking businesses were a premium to me and Google Reviews were invaluable in seeking them out.
Despite this tangible benefit to expats like myself, I’d say this is a prime example of the acute harm these reviews systems can have on a local economy. You could (rightly) argue that I was once again the issue; I should have put more effort into learning Spanish, to the point where I was comfortable frequenting the locally beloved, but Spanish-orientated businesses. regardless, platforms like Google Reviews empower this kind of behaviour, and cultural barriers like language will be unduly tarred with the brush of ‘Bad-Service’ by the english-speaking masses that rely on these systems whilst abroad.
With all this in mind, Google can’t just slap on an online rating to a business and claim to be a central pillar of the community. This is an issue faced by globalized Tech as a whole, but at least the likes of Nextdoor & Facebook actually play their part in bringing local areas together — offering a platform, not just a service, for a community to form in a digital space.
“it’s a real melting pot” Joshua says of Golders Green — as Google promotes androgynous, anglo-US centric quality standards, ones that commodify the value of local business within a range of one-to-five stars.
Google Reviews can only help these enterprises, but ads like #DearLocal are a crass disservice to the people that actually support these businesses for their entire lives.
Hey Google! Want to know a better way to show you care for the local community? Paying more than the forty-four million pounds of tax you currently do on UK earnings in excess of seven billion pounds would be a good place to start.
Google is an omnipotent presence in our daily lives.
Do they really need to claim the High Street too?