There are two kinds of people: Those who watch the Super Bowl (game), and those who watch the Super Bowl ads. Commercial-watching has become as much a sport as the actual sport, uh, doing, with viewers hungrily sussing out patterns. And this year, one of the biggest trends was a surprisingly dark take on robotics and technology.
Since the 1970s, the championship’s spots have become increasingly hot commodities; CBS reportedly sold 30 seconds of air time for upwards of $5.3 million for this year’s Super Bowl LIII. Last year, NBC’s slots topped out at $5.2 million, with an ultimate viewership of 103,400,000. Because of the potential windfall, advertisers often aim for the cultural jugular, with topics and tones that oscillate between manipulatively emotional — they sure love to make us cry, huh? — and inoffensively humorous. This legacy, coupled with the play-it-safe nature of advertising made the surprisingly dystopian undertones of many of Sunday’s ads something of a surprise.
This year, for example, saw a number of “robot fail” spots, promoted by home security company SimpliSafe, TurboTax and Amazon, all of which touched on the idea robotic short-comings in some way or another. Pringles and Michelob ULTRA also approached the topic with what could reasonably be described as a sense of existential dread (Pringles spot was literally titled Sad Device, and featured an Alexa-like device lamenting that she’ll “never know the joy of tasting” Pringles because she doesn’t have hands).
Why Advertisers Couldn’t Stop Dunking on Robots
There’s a reason that people are quicker to see the dystopian undertones to robotics than they are to other forms of emerging technology. Robots, by definition, mechanize and replace human tasks. In the U.S, there are nearly 200 installed industrial robots for every 10,000 manufacturing workers. Between 2015 and 2016, that number grew by seven percent, suggesting the use of robots may double in the next decade. And when surveyed recently by Pew, 65 percent of Americans thought robots and computers would likely replace much of the work currently done by humans (15 percent of those felt certain it would happen). The majority believe a world inundated with robots and A.I. would lead to a poorer quality of life for humans.
Most of the robotics themed ads played on this dichotomy: That companies love robots, but individual humans are terrified of them (It’s easy to see why this is: A manufacturing employee costs an average of $36 an hour. A collaborative machine costs $4). In a few of the spots, humans are darkly depicted as loving to bully robots, who, despite their automated efficiency and incredibly low cost to manufacturers, can neither feel nor taste. Robots? Ya burnt!
These sad sack robot spots included one featured in an ad from TurboTax, who introduced a robo-child whose only real goal in “life” is to become a real boy CPA for TurboTax. The conceit? This childlike dream is impossible and will never happen, because you gotta have emotions to be a human helper. While the spot was meant to highlight TurboTax’s promise to connect people seeking tax help to real humans, the bigger picture — how will this thwarted robot child react after being denied his sole reason for being — was not lost on viewers.
Pringles also featured an Alexa call-out, although they never explicitly name the virtual assistant device who can accurately calculate the number of potential Pringle flavor combinations, but laments its inability to know the taste of three Pringles in one mouth. Pringles continued milking the gag on Monday, even changing their name on Twitter to Sad Device, participating in a back-and-forth with Ram Trucks that doubled down on the Sad Device’s inferiority complex.
Finally, there was Michelob ULTRA, who ran two ads during the Super Bowl (their other spot featured actress Zoe Kravitz doing ASMR), and was yet another brand to hop on the lets-praise-idiosyncratic-human-behavior bandwagon. Their spot featured a robot besting humans at all kinds of sports, from spinning class to golf. But it ends with a shot of a defeated robot, caught in the rain, looking into a bar helplessly as its human peers socialize and drink beer. Anguished FOMO, but for humanity.
But the thwarted Turbo Tax robot’s thirst for revenge aside, the Super Bowl robots actually offer a heartening message for us humans. For better or worse, people derive a large sense of our self-worth from the work we do, which is what makes robots in general feel like a threat. By calling attention to skills robots can not yet adopt, and joys that they will likely never have, the advertisers behind these spots diminish the anxieties that these robots awaken in us. As technology looms ever-larger in our lives, it becomes increasingly important for the companies that develop it to seem human.