Google pulls virtual assistant ad after user outcry

It turns out people don't want to hear about 'Beauty and the Beast' when they ask for their daily agenda

Google Home users got a surprise on Thursday when their virtual assistants cheerily mentioned that the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” is opening in theaters this weekend.

The ad seems to pop up when users ask for a rundown of their day, which kicks off the Home’s “My Day” feature. That feature is supposed to offer users information about the weather, their calendars and relevant news. But at the end of the rundown, the Google Assistant offered the following unsolicited tidbit, according to a video posted to Twitter by Bryson Meunier :

“By the way, Disney’s live action 'Beauty and The Beast' opens today,” it says. “In this version of the story, Belle is the inventor instead of Maurice. That rings truer, if you ask me. For some more movie fun, ask me something about Belle.”

After users started talking about the message, Google put out a statement saying it “isn’t an ad.” A few hours later on Thursday, the company put out a second statement saying that the movie promotion “wasn’t intended to be an ad.” It’s unclear how the content was different from an advertisement, considering that it was a message inserted into users’ briefings with the aim of getting them to go see a movie.

A Google representative didn’t respond when asked if Disney or another of its partners paid for the message placement. The “Beauty and the Beast” message has since been removed.

“We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case,” Google’s second statement concluded.

This incident highlights one of the possible future revenue streams for virtual assistants, as Meunier noted in his tweet. For example, Google and other virtual assistant makers could take payments in exchange for promoting certain results in response to users’ queries, in the same way search advertising works today.

Companies have already tried to use virtual assistant integrations as marketing tools. NBC recently released a skill for Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant that lets users ask Alexa for information about upcoming guests on “The Tonight Show” and listen to host Jimmy Fallon’s monologue. Warner Bros. released a game for Alexa that lets users try to find out who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents as part of its promotion work for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

The big difference between those Alexa integrations and the Google Home ad is that users have to opt into the former and then choose to engage with them. By contrast, Google Home users weren’t asked whether they wanted to hear about “Beauty and the Beast."

Thursday was a banner day for virtual assistant updates. On the same day, Amazon announced that Alexa will be available to iPhone users through the online retailer’s app.

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