Why Robots Were This Year’s Super Bowl Trend

By Madison Taylor
March 7, 2019
two old school wind up robots in front of a gray background

Robots are nothing to worry about. At least, that’s what this year’s Super Bowl commercials would have you believe. No fewer than half a dozen of the year’s most expensive TV spots featured robots, whether they were telling us to buy something or telling us why not to.

But why? Why are robots at the top of everyone’s mind? And why did the execs on Madison Avenue think they’d resonate right now? .

The Commercials

SimpliSafe kicked off the commercials with their spot “Fear Is Everywhere.” In it, a man goes about his day constantly reminded that the world is a scary place. The news is scary, people steal packages off of porches, and robots are coming for your job. In one vignette, a woman asks her husband if he’s listening. He doesn’t answer, but a nearby Amazon Echo-like device says “always, Denise.”

At the end of the spot, the voiceover says “Home is the place you should feel safe,” in contrast with the big scary world. But the message isn’t quite so clear. The ad is intended to satirize, poking fun at the trope of scaring people into buying a security system while continuing to use it.

But if the scary device from earlier — the one listening to Denise — is the problem, then what sets SimpliSafe apart? SimpliSafe also has a clean white piece of hardware with a glowing light and a voice that tells you your home is safe. The minds behind the SimpliSafe ad seem to think that AI is scary, but not so scary that they can’t joke about it.

Michelob and Pringles took a more humorous approach with theirs. In Michelob’s spot, a robot run faster than human joggers, drives a golf ball farther than human golfers, punches harder than a human boxer, and pedals faster than a human cyclist — but it can’t enjoy a cold, refreshing Michelob Ultra. In Pringles’ spot, an Echo-like smart speaker tallies up the total number of Pringles flavors, lamenting that it can’t try them.

The message? Don’t worry about robots — they might be smarter, faster, stronger, and more capable than you, but they can’t snack! Does that sound tone-deaf? That’s because it is. People aren’t worried about robots and AI because they’ll take away our junk food, and pretending that they are just feels like a miss.

Finally, there’s TurboTax. In TurboTax’ spot, a robotic child residing smack in the middle of the uncanny valley acts like a normal human child, for the most part — though the exposed hardware and wires are a giveaway.

The premise of the ad is that the RoboChild (who, thankfully, doesn’t have a real name), wants to be a TurboTax live CPA when it grows up. The human characters in the ad have to explain to RoboChild that TurboTax CPAs are all humans with real emotions, and that RoboChild doesn’t have the emotional range to be one.

Again, though, the spot misses the mark. TurboTax is one of the worst examples of a product that requires the human touch. Tax preparation was one of the earliest uses of automation, and the tax code is empirical and unforgiving — how you feel about your return, and your CPA’s ability to empathize, won’t change your refund. TurboTax is trying to tell us that they care, but it feels disingenuous coming from a company that lets computers do most of the work.

The Problem Of Artificial Intelligence

The fact is, we humans are genuinely, deeply concerned about artificial intelligence. Computers have only gotten better, smarter, and faster over the last few decades, and there’s no reason to think they’ll slow down. Our lives are increasingly reliant on technology, and we’re starting to wonder if that’s a good thing or not.

First is the question of security. SimpliSafe wants to tell us that we’re safest if we hand off our security concerns to their system, but the public is becoming more and more concerned about leaving their personal info and security in the hands of computers. Major data breaches, password leaks, and tech scares have people nervous.

Earlier this month, a teenager discovered a major glitch in Apple’s FaceTime app. Last year, an Echo device seemed to send a snippet of overheard conversation to a random stranger. Our devices are always on, always around, and in many cases, always listening. Now is probably not the time to joke about it.

Second is the question of automation. Self-driving cars have been getting better and better — autonomous trucks are already on the roads, and a future where truck drivers, taxi drivers, and delivery drivers are obsolete doesn’t seem that far off. We’re talking about at least 3 million people who drive for a living, and the worries of automation go much farther than just behind the wheel.

Finally, there’s the question of AI in general. Stephen Hawking was famously worried about “computers [that] can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it.” Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have publicly disagreed about the risks. Sam Harris has warned about it in his TED talk. The questions of unintended consequences, unseen motivations, social manipulation, and discrimination are very real and coming closer and closer to the forefront of public discourse.

We can see why the bigwigs at the ad agencies wanted to make ads with robots in them — they’re tapping into trending topics in modern society in an attempt to resonate with their audiences. But the result is a series of ads that feels like it’s ignoring the legitimate concerns that people are starting to have — not listening, but condescending.