The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tech ads at the Super Bowl offered a shiny — or is it dark? — vision of the future

Depending on your point of view, the years ahead are either worth getting really excited about or worthy of great concern

A home speaker that is close to reading our minds. Robots that can socialize at office happy hours. Cryptocurrency investing that’s as pervasive as the Walkman. A metaverse capable of resurrecting everything that’s died in the physical-verse.

And Larry David to tell us we’re a bunch of misguided cranks if we’re not excited about it.

“There was probably more future-messaging at the Super Bowl this year than ever before,” said Tim Nudd, editor in chief of the the ad-centric groups the Clio Awards and Muse by Clio. “And a real sense of FOMO driving a lot of it,” he added, particularly of the crypto ads.

Normally a redoubt of soft drinks and car brands, the Super Bowl-ad landscape this year offered a look at the coming so-called Web3 era — peddling to mainstream America, during the moment it most pays attention, a vision of the future that’s more shiny and transformative than any it’s portrayed in decades.

Or should that be dark and transformative?

“It was a bizarre night of Super Bowl ads full of near-future dystopian hellscapes,” futurist Amy Webb wrote in response to an email query from The Washington Post. “Once-cherished animatronic dogs had to find compassion in the metaverse. Alexa performed the ultimate invasion of privacy by reading minds. One-hour delivery services rendered humans so helpless they forgot how and what to eat."

She was referring, respectively, to Meta’s Quest 2 ad in which a beloved-but-neglected Chuck E. Cheese-type creation is revived in headset-land; a Scarlett Johansson-Colin Jost spot of Alexa-enabled awkwardness; and an Uber Eats advertisement in which a host of famous people confusedly consume candles and lightbulbs.

While on one level they might be seen as just frilly marketing — this is, after all, the venue that made Go Daddy Famous — Super Bowl ads also send signals about what tech companies and their Madison Avenue interlocutors want us to know about them. Many of the spots (the others noted came from Boston Dynamics’ robots and FTX’s crypto platform) may have injected a degree of lightness. The regional Boston Dynamics commercial, for instance, was a joint ad with Sam Adams that jokingly showing the robotics’ company “Spot” downing beers with security guards, playing off the Super Bowl convention of the anthropomorphic animal.

The FTX commercial had Larry David as a curmudgeon time-jumping through history to naysay inventions like the wheel, democracy and the Walkman along with cryptocurrency. (“Don’t Be Like Larry,” FTX beseeched. “Don’t miss out. On crypto. On NFT’s. On the Next Big Thing.”) And the Amazon Alexa spot had Johansson and Jost in in various states of cringe-comedy as the digital speaker voiced the embarrassing thoughts in their heads. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But for all the ads’ jokiness an undercurrent of sincere ambition ran beneath them. The Boston Dynamics spot featured a cameo from company founder Marc Raibert and was meant to spotlight what robots can do as newish owner Hyundai begins to deploy Spot at a more widespread commercial scale. And Alexa seemed designed to show how powerful the home technology could one day be — to incept in the consumer consciousness what it could conceivably pull off, if not quite yet.

“It’s almost like they want to acculturate an acceptance of these technologies,” said Rabindra Ratan, associate professor in the department of media and information at Michigan State University.

In the Boston Dynamics case, he said, “They are trying to illustrate the diversity of tasks that the robots can help facilitate while also trying to normalize the interaction between humans and this technology.” In the Alexa instance, he said, Amazon’s goal appeared to be to offer “not only a humorous celebration of the strength of their AI, but also a nod toward the increasing integration of predictive algorithms in our daily lives.”

On the one hand, the backlash to some of the ads suggest the companies are in fact pushing people beyond what they want or are ready for.

“For a product that we suspect is listening in and spying on us, to run a Super Bowl ad in which said product is shown indeed listening in and spying on us … that’s a choice,” tweeted Mike Schneider of Variety about the Alexa ad.

But the firms may also be moving the goal posts in a way that’s more subtle and — once you get past the immediate naysaying — successfully redefining of our collective relationship with technology.

“Remember when people would get creeped out by [Internet] sidebar ads that they didn’t expect?” Ratan said. “This is a whole new level, but when you put Scarlett Johansson and some clever self-deprecating jokes on the cover page or use a party-guy trope to normalize the interaction between humans and robots, it’s not quite as scary. Or at least I think that is what they are hoping for.”

He concluded of the latter ad. “I was cracking up. But of course, in the back of my mind, I could not help but imagine those robots armed with guns.”

The spots in some ways evoke “1984,” the mega-famous Ridley Scott ad of nearly four decades ago in which Steve Jobs marketed the Apple Macintosh as a democratizing and personalizing tool — an ad that would go on to set the cultural table for a consumer embrace of technology that continues with devices like the iPhone today.

The spots also shared parallels to the E*trade talking baby (itself making a return Sunday) which, when it first appeared 13 years ago, served to cuddle-ify the then-unsettling prospect of conducting stock trades online.

“The future feels scary and unknown, and a lot of what these ads are saying is that you can feel safe coming along for this ride,” Nudd, the ad expert, said, noting it was why some of the other tech spots also played off 1990s touchstones like “Austin Powers” and “The Cable Guy,” nostalgia as neutralizing force.

Not that this is simple to accomplish. “We want to feel like we’re on a continuum and we’re safe and the world doesn’t change,” Nudd said. “But how do you square that with being a company that’s trying to change the world?” He particularly noted the Meta commercial, which “assumes a vision of the future that people might not share.”

One need not sink into the metaverse to feel a tech-enabled anxiety — amid a potential surveillance future also lies the grimness of a consumerist present. Many of the ads, said James Bessen, executive director of the Technology & Policy Research Initiative at Boston University’s School of Law, “seem to be just more hype, pretending these machines can do far more than what they actually do.

“But apparently even this sort of hype helps sell things,” he said. “Elon Musk has been playing this game for years.”

That was possibly on display with Coinbase, whose minimalist QR-code ad playing off a popular DVD meme caused people who captured the code to flood the app, causing it to crash. Many were seeking the free investment money offered by the platform; it remained to be seen how users would feel if their investments cratered, as many cryptocurrencies have in recent months.

The idea of a future in which we spend our days tooling around the metaverse using crypto to buy NFTs was on display with, of all things, a Bud Light Next ad, which contained layers of subtext beneath the fizz.

The Anheuser-Busch spot for the zero-carb beer included, via a distinct pair of glasses shown in a piece museum artwork, a nod to a type of NFTs known as “Nouns.” As it happens, Bud Light recently teamed with Nouns to create the Bud Light N3XT Collection — more than 12,000 NFTs done in the scheme of the brand it then sold for $399 per token. That $399 — no decimal point required — is part of a noteworthy bid by the brand to cultivate a hipper image and attract younger drinkers.

It might also court some ill feeling. The value of NFTs famously fluctuate, and buyer reaction could be intense if the price of $400 tokens for Bud Light Next go as low as its carb count.

All of this future talk has given even futurist minds an uneasy feeling. As we were encouraged not to be like Larry, some asked if it made more sense to be like McConaughey.

Matthew, that is, who starred in an ad for the customer-focused software company Salesforce. Tossing off a similar “eh” as the FTX pitchman, the actor shunned all this shiny-future stuff in favor of “Team Earth,” Salesforce’s sustainability initiative.

“So while the others look to the metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours,” he said.

“The most inspirational ad of the night came from Salesforce and Matthew McConaughey who, dressed like an astronaut, literally brought us back down to Earth,” Webb said. “Where do I get a Team Earth badge?”

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