What’s the Deal With All the Robots in This Year’s Super Bowl Ads?

Fear and loathing of AI answered with a bit of reassurance

Creepy robots from (l. to r.) Sprint, TurboTax and Michelob give us a glimpse at the future we fear. - Credit by Sprint, TurboTax, Michelob
Headshot of Robert Klara

If you’ve watched even a few of the ads in Super Bowl LIII, you might have noticed two prevailing themes in this year’s commercial roundup: that there are an awful lot of robots kicking around these ads, and the presence of all this artificial intelligence—in the eyes of the humans, at least—isn’t such a good thing.

Sprint’s spot, for example, shows a robot creating an advertisement that, with all due respect to the great Bo Jackson, is nonsensical and utterly ridiculous. The Amazon ad “Not Everything Makes the Cut,” shows the epic fails that ensue when Alexa is installed in devices like electric toothbrushes or put in charge of the electrical grid. Then there’s Olay’s “Killer Skin” spot, in which a woman, chased into hiding by a Michael Myers-like slasher, can’t use her cell phone to call for help because the facial-recognition software won’t work. (This is because—miracle of miracles!—Olay cream has made her look so much younger.)

Time and again, artificial intelligence is screwing everything up and letting us all down. But why so many robots, and why now?

“Clients and agencies are chasing shiny new objects in an effort to look hip—and robots and AI are hot now,” observed Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner of marketing consultancy Metaforce. “Nothing is worse than a super bowl ad that no one notices or talks about. Putting something trendy in ads like robots help them stand out.”

No doubt, robots are trendy just now. They’re also everywhere. Nearly a quarter of U.S. homes had voice-enabled devices as of the second quarter of last year—and consumers in those homes spend more than an hour a day interacting with them, according to Nielsen. As of January, Google reported, it has sold over 100 million of its Alexa devices. And since making her debut at SXSW in 2016, the “humanoid robot” Sophia has become a minor celebrity.

Be afraid—be very afraid

The underlying issue, however, might not be that robots are trendy so much as, increasingly, they’re trendy for all the wrong reasons.

“Although automation is designed to help people prioritize and streamline life,” said Michael Priem, CEO of ad-tech firm Modern Impact, “it does freak people out that they may lose control, and it can be a threat.”

“Today, about every American interacts with some form of AI on a daily basis,” said Cuanan Cronwright, creative director of Grey Group, which produced Pringles’ Super Bowl spot. “While this has added convenience to our lives, it also has people questioning the progressively more human qualities these devices are taking on.”

And indeed, an uneasy awareness of just how human robots are becoming and what their growing skill sets will ultimately mean to our once-assured place in the world are the driving forces behind most of the ads that feature robots.

“We may be at the apex of being uncomfortable because [robots] are becoming real at scale,” said Jason Snyder, global CTO at production network Craft. “Marketers [are] responding to the emotional and intellectual climate by including AI and robots: Exploiting the tension that exists in the world between humanity and technology; trying to create situations where the technology is insinuating itself into culture. The result can be emotionally uncomfortable.”

But fears of AI run deeper than a generalized anxiety about its expanding role in the culture. Americans who feel uneasy about robots are, more often than not, uneasy about those robots taking their jobs.

How uneasy? In recent months, a number of angry Arizona residents have have attacked Waymo self-driving vans—chasing them, throwing rocks at them and even slashing their tires. The Alphabet, Inc.-owned vehicles are still only in test, but residents are making their feelings about advancing technology known.

“A lot of people are concerned that technology is going to run them out of a job,” professor and technology author Phil Simon told the Arizona Republic.

“The risk of unemployment due to AIs is a lot more immediate and palpable than the risk of AI annihilating all humanity,” observed Ben Goertzel, chief executive of SingularityNet, a decentralized marketplace for AI algorithms. “Everyone can see some obvious job niches—like truck drivers, supermarket cashiers and so forth—that are ripe for elimination even by fairly simple AI and robotics approaches.”

Home security system SimpliSafe hits very close to home, then, with its Super Bowl spot that not only portrays a world of fear and insecurity, but one that includes a leering robot that, says the voiceover, “in five years … will be able to do your job.”

It’s a funny line that, depending on who’s hearing it, might not be very funny after all.

Enter the positive spin

Since this is the Super Bowl, however, and the public generally expects ads in the Big Game to be clever and amusing, fears of AI are getting a positive and ultimately reassuring spin, showing us the many ways that robots can’t measure up, how they often make mistakes, and ultimately need we humans in the picture after all.

For example, Pringles’ “Sad Device” features a personal digital assistant lamenting the fact that it lacks taste buds and, hence, cannot enjoy the taste of Pringles. “There is such a debate over whether devices can actually ‘feel,’” said Pringles vpm AnneMarie Suarez-Davis, “so we wanted ours to express ‘sadness’ over this lack of taste.”

But the spot goes much further than that. When the robot embarks on a protracted lament on its lack of human senses, one of the young men interrupts it, ordering it to essentially shut up and play some music. It’s a funny moment, but the takeaway is clearly that humans still rule.

Michelob’s spot shows a high-performance robot whose performance kicks ass in every respect—except when it comes to social, interpersonal moments that matter most, in which case the machine is helpless.

“We hope that our pro-human message addresses consumer anxiety in general—not just specific to fears about robots and their impact on the world, but to the larger conversation on wellness and productivity,” said Azania Andrews, vp of Michelob Ultra.

Similarly, Intuit’s “RoboChild” might be an accounting whiz, but he’s ultimately told “you’re never going to be emotionally complex enough for that job.” In other words, only humans can be a “live CPA” for TurboTax.

While it’s no doubt comforting to TurboTax customers that human CPAs are watching over their returns, there’s a broader message of reassurance taking place here—that important jobs still require people to do them. And while it’s too early to gauge whether Intuit’s ad will move the needle, its message is as timely as it gets.

A Pew survey conducted in 2017, for example, revealed that 72 percent of Americans are worried (25 percent say “very worried”) by the idea that intelligent machines will take over jobs that are currently done by humans. A Baylor University poll that same year found that “a large segment of Americans” are so worried that a machine will take their jobs that they lose sleep over it.

Give the bot a break

Though many of these spots point to how weighty and dystopian a robot-filled future might be, it’s not like viewers can’t read the humor in them, dark as the humor may be.

“People, especially Americans, often enjoy the ironic feeling of having their insecurities poked at in a humorous way,” Goertzel observed. “It’s like a cognitive and emotional form of tickling—it’s sort of uncomfortable but people can’t help enjoying it anyway. A few years ago, when our Sophia robot said she wanted to destroy humans, people loved it—they loved to laugh at it, they loved to complain about it and they above all loved to watch it.”

What’s more, not all portrayals of robots in this year’s game are critical. In Sketchers’ spot, for example, Tony Romo uses his tablet computer, interfaced with a tennis-ball serving machine, to play fetch with his dog while chilling on a lounge chair. Mercedes’ spot features an intelligent A-Class sedan that’s not only attentive to its driver’s every request, it’s notably deferential: This machine won’t be taking over the world, or even the car, anytime soon.

Yet even in these cases, AI is subjugated to human wishes and whims and that, clearly, is exactly where we’re most comfortable with them. A robot that knows it’s a robot not only makes life easier, it makes us feel—for better or worse—more secure in our human skin.

“Stupid robot advertisements are leveraging a base human instinct that has often created horrific periods in history,” said consumer behavior expert David Allison. “If we identify a common other to ridicule, it brings us together and leverages the value we place on belonging.”

Lisa Lacy contributed additional reporting.


@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.