The Nervous Laughter of the Super Bowl’s Robot Ads

We fear automation and A.I. just enough to satirize them.

Left: Michelob’s ad robot. Right: Intuit’s ad robot.
Left: Michelob’s ad robot. Right: Intuit’s ad robot.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michelob ULTRA Super Bowl 2019/YouTube and TurboTax Live 2019 Super Bowl Commercial “RoboChild”/YouTube.

If there’s one thing we learned from the commercials that aired during this year’s Super Bowl, it’s that we humans are definitely not worried about robots or artificial intelligence at this juncture in history. Not at all. In fact, we find them funny. Ha-ha! See? We’re laughing confidently, as humans do when confronted with a new trend or phenomenon that doesn’t at all threaten or otherwise discomfit us.

No fewer than six commercials that aired during Sunday’s broadcast featured either robots or A.I. voice assistants interacting with humans. In each case, there was an implied comparison between bot and human. And in most cases, the message was this: Sure, robots are smarter and more capable than us in many ways. Yes, they may be taking our jobs. And fine, they might screw up the entire world in unpredictable ways. But don’t worry because they’re still laughably bad at a few things that we humans are good at. So, you know, buy some Pringles.

It’s possible that Madison Avenue is just out of touch. But if the ads they cooked up for companies ranging from Michelin to TurboTax to Sprint provide a window into America’s anxieties, it sure seems like we’re struggling to figure out our place alongside machine intelligence. And we’re already resorting to gallows humor in the face of our own obsolescence.

The robot reckoning began with an ad from SimpliSafe, called “Fear Is Everywhere,” that played tech’s dark side for some wry chuckles. “In five years, robots will be able to do your job, your job, and your job” a man tells his friends at a ballgame. The camera pans up to show a robot in a baseball cap on the top bleacher eating a hot dog, who gives a slightly menacing dude-nod. Cut to an electronics store where a woman asks her phone-distracted husband if he’s listening. The reply comes instead from an Amazon Echo–like device on the store shelf: “Always, Denise.”

The spot works because it cloaks real fears in satire. It’s at once a sendup of the “scare people into buying a security system” genre and an exemplar of it.

That spooky-funny duality may help to explain why robots are fast becoming a trope in TV advertising. Humor is a way of dealing with topics that make us uncomfortable while maintaining some emotional distance from them. A.I. taking our jobs and listening in on our conversations really is frightening, but it isn’t quite so frightening that we can’t joke about it—like, say, climate change or terrorism. At least, not yet.

A pair of ads with strikingly similar themes—for Pringles and Michelob Ultra—tapped a slightly different vein of human-machine anxiety. Each depicted an artificially intelligent device showing off superhuman abilities, only to lament its inability to share in human pleasures. Michelob’s ad “Robots” gives us a humanoid robot outpacing human joggers, outdriving golfers, outpunching boxers, and outpedaling cyclists, before gazing longingly through the window of a bar to watch people cracking open a cold one. The Pringles spot “Sad Device” has an Echo-esque smart speaker instantly tallying up the total number of possible Pringles flavor combinations, then turning melancholic as it explains that it will never be able to enjoy any of them.

From a marketing perspective, the robots here are just a foil for humans’ enjoyment of the products being advertised. (We’ll have to grant for the sake of argument the dubious premise that eating Pringles and drinking Michelob Ultra are actually pleasurable. Otherwise, the joke’s on the humans.) But the ads’ humor, such as it is, relies on setting up robots as superior to us, then subverting the expectation that robots are emotionless in order to restore our place atop the hierarchy. The takeaway is superficially reassuring, but it only works because our status anxiety is real.

Intuit’s ad for TurboTax, “RoboChild,” is structurally similar, but explores a different dimension of our complicated relationship with robots: the uncanny valley. The bot here eerily resembles a human child, from its face to its speech patterns to the all-trusting neediness that triggers our protective parental instincts. It wants to become a “TurboTax live CPA” when it grows up, and is crestfallen when it learns the job is reserved for humans due to their superior emotional intelligence. The punchline is that the cute little robot fails at being crestfallen, saying, “I am sad,” but emitting a peal of creepy laughter.

When you think about it, what’s really creepy here is that Intuit is using the robochild’s pathos to sell a product that is fundamentally automated, and has in fact already replaced human labor on a large scale. Tax preparation was in the vanguard of the automation revolution, and now Intuit is touting a veneer of human intelligence as a value-added layer to differentiate it from rivals. The way the ad toys with our tendency to anthropomorphize machines is clever, but also a little queasy coming from a company that’s pioneering the outsourcing of white-collar work to software.

You’d think ad creatives would have learned to stay away from sad humanoids after GM’s backlash-inducing 2007 ad about a suicidal assembly-line robot. But maybe they’ve quietly agreed that enough time has passed, and if they’re still trivializing job displacement, at least they’ve learned to steer clear of trivializing suicide. The fact that the economy is nearing full employment probably has something to do with the timing.

Then there’s Amazon. Its Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers have done more than any other product (sorry Siri) to bring voice A.I. into our everyday lives. That so many other ads feature Echo-like devices is a testament to Alexa’s place in the zeitgeist. It’s telling, then, that Amazon eschewed a victory lap in favor of self-deprecation.

Amazon’s ad “Not Everything Makes the Cut” recounts a series of fictional product-design bloopers involving Alexa, from putting it in Forest Whitaker’s toothbrush (where it plays a podcast inside his mouth) to putting it in a dog collar worn by Harrison Ford’s dog (whose barks trigger Amazon shopping orders). Then there’s “the incident,” in which it’s suggested that a malfunctioning Alexa device on the International Space Station cut power to the whole world.

It might seem like a misstep for Amazon to spend millions on a commercial to highlight the ways Alexa can go wrong, rather than the ways it can go right. But it bespeaks confidence on Amazon’s part that people already understand Alexa’s power, along with a winking awareness of its limitations.

Ultimately, the ad goes out of its way to reassure us that Amazon’s A.I. isn’t smart enough to take over the world, and suggests that its pitfalls lie in its incompetence rather than, say, its omniscience. It’s a sly red herring, diverting attention from people’s real concern with Alexa: the fact that it’s always listening.

A sixth robot ad, from Sprint, probably doesn’t prove much except that it won’t be long before robots in commercials cross the line from novel gimmick to cliché. Maybe they already have.

In Sprint’s absurdist spot “Best of Both Worlds,” erstwhile former Verizon spokesman Paul Marcarelli (“Can you hear me now?”) brainstorms a Sprint commercial with a team of robots, who conjure up Bo Jackson, a mermaid, a keytar, and a “bird horse” to tell us … well, something about Sprint, probably, although you’d be hard-pressed to remember it by the time the ad is through. To be fair, Sprint’s ads have been featuring robots for a while now. And this one could be generously read as light satire of the thirst for virality that drives so many other Super Bowl ads these days. (It’s as if they’re written by an algorithm!)

To what extent the robot ads really resonated beyond the boardrooms where ad agencies pitched them is not clear. The Wall Street Journal cites ad-tracking data that shows most of them made relatively little splash on social media. Both Sprint’s and TurboTax’s ads ranked among the bottom 10 on USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter, a public opinion poll. But Amazon’s ranked second, behind a crowd-pleasing NFL house ad, and Pringles’ rated above-average.

Maybe humanoid robots aren’t yet close enough to our daily lives to delight us, although the strong negative reactions to TurboTax’s robochild imply that they at least hold the power to unnerve us. It’s in the less-threatening inanimate form of Alexa that A.I. is actually infiltrating our lives, and the success of both the software and Amazon’s ad campaign tells us that we’re gradually accepting it—not just in spite of its obvious limitations but because of them.

Today, it seems, we can laugh about Alexa’s quirks in between punts and incomplete passes. And maybe in a few years, we’ll be laughing about the kind of robots that more closely resemble us and more directly threaten our livelihoods, too. Or maybe by then we’ll have realized they were never that funny to begin with.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.