By Eric Turkington, RAIN
SuperBowl spots reveal barometers of what the world’s biggest brands think the American public wants to hear. And in 2020, perhaps more starkly than ever, SuperBowl ads telegraphed the complicated relationship we humans have with our AI counterparts.
SuperBowl advertisers often converge around common themes each year based on the prevailing sentiment–from embracing nostalgia to championing social purpose to retaining our humanity amidst technological revolution. Striking about the several commercials that featured voice AI in 2020 was how different they were, with each revealing a distinct belief, fear or hope that we harbor about this technology as it becomes an ever more central in our lives.
Here’s a breakdown of wildly different takes I saw about the role of voice assistants at the dawn of a decade.
Amazon goes for humor to reinforce modern AI dependence. Amazon’s Alexa ad tapped celebrity star power to explore a hypothetical: Real life couple Ellen and Portia wonder what life was like before Alexa. Clearly no expense was spared to imagine humorous takes on this question across a range of faux-historical settings, from court jesters to bottle-blowing musicians. The ad reinforces the notion of servility:
Alexa is the agent serving the human master while also overtly calling attention to the humanness of the voice assistants’ name (every vignette includes a person with a name that begins with A-L). This ad touches on two controversial questions in voice AI:. First, should we be teaching our children to treat voice assistants as fundamentally less-than-human, worthy of subjugation of our every request? Secondly, was it fair to people named Alexa to have their names be co-opted by Amazon for a voice assistant positioned broadly in popular culture as a servant? Lauren Johnson, founder of Alexa, who is a human, certainly would have a thing or two to say here.
Google tugs at heartstrings by showing an emotional side of voice AI. Considered by many to be among the best of this year’s crop, Google’s “Loretta” tapped into the emotionally raw and relatable circumstance of dealing with a loved one’s death. A man uses Google Assistant–the name is never mentioned in the creative–to remember advice his wife gave him and to pull up memories of their time together. In contrast to Alexa’s portrayal, Google Assistant is playing the role of supportive companion and memorialist. This isn’t the subjugation of AI for menial tasks, but for an elevated purpose that augments the relationship we have with one another, whether living or dead.
Snickers raises that ole eavesdropping concern. Snickers used a generic voice assistant as one of many antagonists in a broader tableau of internet-gone-wrong. An older man sings “the surveillance state’s got a brand new trick,” to which a female voice assistant inside a speaker remarks, coldly, “I am not spying.” The moment was fleeting, but it’s nonetheless telling that the notion of spying smart speakers is a part of the dystopian tech narrative as selfie culture, sexting, and adult scooters.
Coca-Cola makes voice a tactical channel. Coca-Cola’s spot touting its new energy drink did not directly make reference to voice assistants, but Alexa has been among the biggest part of the launch campaign for the same product. Before the ad ran on SuperBowl day, Coke launched a large-scale sampling campaign and leveraged Alexa as a channel for consumers. Using the command “Alexa, order Coke Energy”, consumers would get a free sample of the new product, all which reportedly sold out before the game. While the ad creative was devoid of calls-to-action on Alexa, Coke made savvy use of voice as a sampling strategy to build buzz for the product before its big SB debut. Perhaps if they had a few (million) more samples on hand, they would have included an Alexa call-to-action at the end of the spot.
Voice AI has become—and will be even more so—an indelible part of our culture. As voice is able to do more, the references to voice may well become less thematic and topical and even more practical and functional. Indeed, the promoted utterance might be the most prominent hashtag in 2021.
Eric Turkington is the VP of strategic partnerships at RAIN, a firm specializing in voice strategy, design and development.