Commentary

Voice-Tech Zeitgeist: Ads Reveal Evolving Relationship With AI

Super Bowl spots reveal barometers of what the world’s biggest brands think the American public wants to hear. In 2020, Super Bowl ads telegraphed the complicated relationship we humans have with our AI counterparts. 

Here’s a breakdown of different takes on the role of voice assistants at the dawn of a decade.

Amazon goes for humor to highlight modern AI dependence. Amazon’s Alexa ad tapped celebrity star power to explore a hypothetical: Real life couple Ellen DeGeneres 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 human qualities of voice assistants. 

This ad also 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?

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Second, 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 Alexawhoisahuman, sent a letter to Amazon noting that  her six-year-old daughter “is being constantly bullied at school and camp because her name is Alexa.’

Google tugs at heartstrings by showing an emotional side of voice AI., Google’s “Loretta” tapped into the emotionally raw and relatable circumstance of dealing with a loved one’s death. A man uses Google Assistant 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. 

Snickers raises that ole eavesdropping concern. Snickers used an older man to sing “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 more of an accepted or even a bygone view. 

Coca-Cola makes voice a tactical channel. Prior to Super Bowl day, Coke launched a sampling campaign, having consumers say “Alexa, order Coke Energy,” for a free sample of the new product, all of which sold out before the game. Perhaps if Coke had a few (million) more samples on hand, it would have included an Alexa call-to-action at the end of the spot. 

Voice AI has become an indelible part of our culture. As voice can do more, the references to voice may well become less thematic and topical and more practical and functional. Indeed, the promoted utterance might be the most prominent hashtag in 2021.

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