Don’t Be Scared Of Robots


[This essay originally appeared as a podcast at The Brand Populist]

Well, another Super Bowl has come and gone, and while the Patriots will long remember the addition of another championship to their history, I think the commercials will quickly be forgotten.

That’s why Super Bowl ads are so inane, as is our fascination with talking about them. I’ve long suspected that there’s an inverse relationship between which brands choose to run them (and how much they pay), and how poorly those businesses subsequently perform.

Like the only impact that reaches beyond the game is this recurring bad judgment. But I digress…

While we won’t remember the spots, I wonder if we’ll retain some unconscious awareness of a theme that cut across many of them: Don’t be scared of robots.

TurboTax’s really creepy spots had a Pinocchio-like baby robot who’s doomed wish was to grow up to be an accountant. Yeah, I’m not kidding.

Michelob showed us a robot besting humans at every conceivable work or sports activity, but then gets all dejected because it can’t enjoy a brewski, and a voice-activated home assistant gets bummed out because it can’t enjoy Pringles potato chips,

A home security system called SimpliSafe casts the threat of robotic overlords into a broader context of all the stupid “little“ things we’re told we should worry about, like foods and package getting stolen from our front porches.

Catch the common thread? It’s not just chance that it’s there. Anybody who knows a thing about advertising knows that Super Bowl ads work best when they play on themes of sex, crude jokes, more sex, or puppies.

So why the theme that robots are going to take over, but they’ll always be inferior to us because they can’t enjoy beer, potato chips…or be accountants.

Even if you ignore the fact that there’s a 94% chance robots will replace accountants and auditors (earning the headline “You are Doomed” on the website, the idea that we human beings will somehow win the war with robots because we can get fat or simply shrug off their victory is, well, either incomprehensibly stupid…

…or eerily prescient.

Automation isn’t just coming to a job or life experience near you, it’s already here, or there, and it’s only going to increase over time.

The money is just too good when you consider that an automated process can do things that people do, only faster, more reliably, with less backtalk and no need for health insurance (fix-its from the IT person are far cheaper than funding a PPO or HMO plan). It’s one main reason why commercial productivity has been going up for a while now without commensurate increases in wages.

The pitch to we bags of flesh is that automation gets us better services, and that robotics, unlike technology innovations of years past, may also free us from the very need to work. This will mean more opportunities for humans to do, well, nobody really knows, but I bet that their bet is that we’ll use at least some of that newfound free time to buy beer and potato chips. 

Putting sad robots in TV commercials is just another, somewhat subtle way to normalize that transformation. Get us used to it, but not aware enough to be concerned.

Long after we forget the sales pitches — there were few of them anyway — maybe subconsciously we’ll be a little less resistant to the continued encroachment of robots into our lives.

After all, we’re superior to them. Now pass those chips.

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