Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant separates civilization from barbarism in the tech giant’s Super Bowl LIV ad. Released ahead of the game on Sunday, the ad highlights things Alexa can do by asking, “What do you think people did before Alexa?”
Alexa Enlightens the Dark Ages
Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi kick off the ad, with DeGeneres activating an Echo Dot smart speaker and asking Alexa to lower the thermostat temperature as they walk out the door. DeGeneres wonders aloud about the pre-Alexa times, leading into a series of short sketches where people whose names start with AL have to carry out tasks that Alexa can now handle. For instance, Alessa the maid cools down a room by picking up a flaming log from the fireplace and hurling it through a window, setting herself on fire in the process. Then there’s Alexei the jester who can’t remember a joke and Al the pioneer who plays someone’s favorite song on a jug. The montage ends with President Richard Nixon asking his secretary Alicia to remind him to delete those tapes and her looking right at the camera and muttering, “I ain’t deleting.”
The ad is a clever way to illustrate some of what Alexa can do, although the implication that AI can’t fail and that humans always will is hard to take seriously. The fact that the final sketch makes it clear that human judgment is better than mindless obedience also somewhat runs counter to the notion that a voice assistant is an unalloyed good. It’s also kind of weird to see people ordering other people the way we do with Alexa. It’s one thing when a queen makes a command, but someone ordering their friend to play a song without even saying please raises questions of manners and if voice AI is going to make people less polite.
Humor Vs. Sentiment in Voice Assistant Super Bowl Ads
The Amazon ad goes for humor, in contrast to the sweet sentiment of Google’s Super Bowl ad about Google Assistant. Google’s commercial tells the story of a widower using Google Assistant to help remember his wife. On a tech level, Amazon’s ad covers more smart home and communication features, while Google doubles down on the media and note-taking abilities. The split in tone and emphasis sets the two ads apart.
Amazon and Google’s ads do share a foundation, however, the assumption that they don’t have to explain what a voice assistant is. That is arguably more important than any of the differences. As a recent NPR and Edison survey found, a little over half of U.S. adults have used a voice command on some device. Amazon and Google both take for granted that their audience knows what they are trying to sell them on. After all, according to Amazon, the pre-Alexa world had to worry about messenger pigeons being eaten by hawks, who were then devoured by dragons.